For most teams, a myriad of unknown variables will decide their fate this upcoming season. Although that’s also true for New Hampshire, a single unknown dominates all others.
Hobey Baker finalist, All-American and First-Team All-Hockey East goaltender Ty Conklin was The Man who kept Wildcat hopes alive even during prolonged scoring droughts last season. His graduation leaves a big question mark in the UNH crease. How well returnees Matt Carney and Michael Ayers fill that void will go a long way toward determining their team’s success in 2001-2002.
Carney, a senior, has paid more than his share of dues the past four years, backing up both Conklin and Sean Matile except for a 1998-99 sabbatical in the USHL. However, paying dues doesn’t always translate into an eventual payday. While it’s no reflection on his abilities that he couldn’t push Conklin aside and earn more time in the crease, the fact remains that Carney has never played more than five collegiate games in a season and is now two years removed from his last significant amount of playing time. On the plus side, though, he did play well (4-0-1, 2.41 GAA, .898 Sv%) last season in his limited action.
Ayers, a sophomore, also experienced success in the USHL, but ranked below Carney on the depth chart last year and will have to prove that he deserves to leapfrog his more experienced netmate.
“I think Matt’s got some more experience and he’s a little bit older,” says coach Dick Umile. “That doesn’t mean he’s won the position, but he’s the one that has the most experience and probably he’ll be the [top goaltender]. I think it’s going to be a battle and that’s going to bring out the best in both of them.
“We think they’re two pretty good goaltenders and they’re able to do some pretty good things for us. They’re going to have an opportunity and we think they’re going to able to give us good, solid goaltending.”
While concerns about the goaltending dwarf all others, there will also be new faces on the blueline at the same time that less of a margin for error exist than when Ty-2K patrolled the crease. Four significant contributors from last year’s group — juniors Garrett Stafford and Kevin Truelson along with sophomores Nick Mounsey and Mike Lubesnick — return along with Tim Horst, who only played in eight games due to injury.
Stafford is the clear leader of the group. If the league were still picking preseason All-Hockey East teams, he’d be an obvious selection. The rest of the group isn’t as eye-catching, but were still significant reasons why New Hampshire set a new Hockey East record for fewest goals allowed per game.
Freshmen Robbie Barker and Tyson Teplitsky round out the blueline corps. Teplitsky, the more offensive-minded of the two, earned runner-up top defenseman honors in the BCHL while Barker hails from the USHL.
“There’s no question that Garrett Stafford and Kevin Truelson have played an awful lot for us,” says Umile. “They’ve been running our power play — or trying to run our power plays, I should say. [UNH finished next-to-last in Hockey East power plays.] They’re the ones that have made a major step forward. Even though they’re juniors, they’re like our two senior leaders at defense. I think they’re going to have a great season.
“With Lubesnick, who did an awful lot for us, Mounsey and Tim Horst — who got injured — we think those are three solid defensemen. So we have some good experience in our defense and we think we’re going to be strong back there.”
Arguably, the strength of the team could be its forwards with the top four and seven of the top nine scorers returning. Those seven — seniors Darren Haydar and David Busch, juniors Lanny Gare, Colin Hemingway, Jim Abbott and Josh Prudden and freshman Nathan Martz– all tallied at least 16 points last year, a number matched only by Maine. Add in highly-regarded freshmen Justin Aikins (BCHL all-star), Preston Callander (USHL all-star), Ed Caron (NE Prep all-star) and Sean Collins (Hockey Night In Boston MVP) and the Wildcats have the potential ingredients to rebound from a couple sub-par offensive years.
— UNH coach Dick Umile
That said, the UNH offense will need to be much more productive in Hockey East games. Last year, it beat up on nonconference foes to the tune of 4.07 goals per game, but could only muster 2.54 goals per game against league opponents. Darren Haydar provides Exhibit A of that trend. Although he had 41 points overall, only 17 of them came in Hockey East contests. No doubt that accounted for his absence from the league all-star team. However, Haydar clearly wasn’t alone in that regard.
“There’s no question that’s why we didn’t finish [strong],” says Umile. “If you look at wins and losses we had a good season, but we didn’t get to where we wanted to go. We failed to score when we had opportunities.
“We’re very confident this season that we have a lot coming back, obviously led by Darren Haydar, who I think will have a fabulous year. He’s going to be one of the premier forwards in the league. The junior class did well the first half of last year, but struggled at the end of the season. But they’re coming back along with some freshman kids who have proven that they can score wherever they’ve played.”