After two straight seasons atop Hockey East, New Hampshire fell to fourth place last year. Although that hardly ranks as a catastrophe, the surprise was not in the result but in the details. The Wildcats, consistently among the league leaders in team defense, fell to fifth overall, eighth in league games.
Eighth? Next to last in defense? UNH? The Wildcats allowed 3.17 goals per league game?
If you spent last year on Pluto and just returned, you’d suspect a misprint. After all, UNH had returned All-American goaltender Mike Ayers and a veteran group of defensemen. How in the name of Hobey Baker could such a group fail to excel defensively, much less finish eighth?
Well, stranger things have happened and last year is water under the bridge.
That said, the new season offers the same questions only with new faces. Ayers, a mere mortal last year after an unconscious junior season, is gone as are defensemen Mick Mounsey, Mike Lubesnick and Tim Horst. Last year’s enigmatic defensive weaknesses could either continue uncorrected — while not being surprising this time around considering all the new faces — or give way to a return to UNH’s penchant for rock solid defense.
The top goaltending spot will fall to junior Jeff Pietrasiak, who played well in limited action (3-1-1, 1.86 GAA, .923 Sv%), but was consigned to the bench by Ayers’ excellence. Freshman Kevin Regan will be the new face offering competition along with sophomore A.J. Bucchino.
“We graduated an All-American in Michael Ayers and that’s an area that we have to replace,” coach Richard Umile says, “but Jeff Pietrasiak got about four starts last year and got into about seven [more] games and showed he can compete at this level. He’s excited that he’s going to have the opportunity.
“There’s no question that in this league you have to be consistent and strong in goal and we’re confident that we’ve got goaltenders who can do that. We think our goaltending is going to be strong, but that remains to be seen. We’ll find out very quickly.
“Jeff will be the one we go with early on and we’ll see what happens [after that] but I think there’s going to be some good competition there and that’s always healthy.”
The blue line is an even bigger question. Tyson Teplitsky and Brian Yandle are the known quantities with Yandle being an especially powerful weapon on the man advantage where he scored nine goals. After that, however, there are a number of returning part-time players who will need to step up into more prominent roles. Freshmen Brad Flaishans and Craig Switzer are likely to be brought along slowly.
“We graduated three senior defensemen,” Umile says. “Mick Mounsey and mike Lubesnick were everyday players for us who did a lot for us, very quietly, but got the job done. They got the puck up and defended very well. We’re going to miss them.
“That is an area that is a challenge for us, defensively as a team, from the net out, defensemen, goaltenders and team defense. Be able to get out against good forechecking teams. Be able to handle the puck. That’s going to be our challenge.
“We’ve got the two freshmen, but it will be guys like Michael Hutchins, John Doherty and Chris Murray — guys who practiced with us last year and played a little bit last year — who will need to fill those roles. We think that they can fill those roles, but that will be the challenge. As quickly as they can do it, that will dictate how we’ll do.”
What isn’t a concern is the Wildcats’ ability to score. Yes, Player of the Year Stephen Saviano is gone along with Nathan Martz and the physical presence of Patrick Foley and Eddie Caron, but there’s plenty of offensive talent returning. Sean Collins, Justin Aikins and Preston Callander lead a group that could give Boston College a run for most explosive firepower in Hockey East.
“We’ll be able to create good scoring opportunities and score points,” Umile says. “Stephen Saviano had a fabulous season so it might take two players to accomplish what he did. But we have some very skilled forwards so I think that offensively we’ll be the team that we’ve always been, able to score goals and [be strong on] the power play.
“We have three senior forwards in Sean Collins, Justin Aikins and Preston Callander who have done a lot for us.”
There should be plenty of goals scored at the Whitt this year by the Wildcats. The question is whether that will also be true of their opponents.