Last year’s New Hampshire Wildcats dipped a bit after back-to-back regular season titles, having graduated too much talent to pull off a three-peat. They finished tied for third — not too shabby — and then came close to erasing any shred of disappointment with a near trip to the Frozen Four. Following an electrifying win over North Dakota in the NCAA Northeast Regional opener, New Hampshire outplayed eventual national champion Boston University for much of their contest before falling in an agonizing closing-seconds loss.
There will be more holes to fill this time around and a league that seems to get tougher and tougher each year. But there are also positions of considerable UNH strength.
It starts between the pipes where Brian Foster returns for his senior season. After spending two years playing second fiddle to player of the year Kevin Regan, Foster emerged as a top netminder in his own right, earning league goaltender of the month awards twice. An ankle injury hobbled him for a time and forced then-freshman Matt DiGirolamo into some tough starts perhaps before he was ready, but Foster returns healthy and with 35 games under his belt from last season.
“We’re going to need him early on,” UNH coach Dick Umile says. “If you look at our schedule, we’ve got Miami coming in and us going West to play Wisconsin. He’s going to have to play solid until our younger guys get their feet wet and find out what their role truly is.
“We think he can [take his game] to the next level. There’s no substitute for experience. He got off to a slow start with the high ankle sprain, but once he got healthy he was feeling a lot better and playing a lot better. He played very well at the end of the season and in the regional tournament he played extremely well.
“He’s in great shape, he’s working really hard, and he’s one of our best conditioned athletes. If he plays well, we’ll compete.”
In front of Foster, the blue line corps will need to replace the losses of Joe Charlebois, Jamie Fritsch, and Kevin Kapstad. Blake Kessel returns for his sophomore season as the offensive leader of the group. Senior Nick Krates provides the most experience while Matt Campanale and Damon Kipp will need to fill more significant roles. Two freshmen — Connor Hardowa (6-1, 210 pounds) and Brett Kostolansky (5-10, 175) — could make an immediate impact.
“We lost three senior defenseman so that’s going to be a challenge for us,” Umile says. “There’s no substitute for senior defense. But we’ve got some [talent] coming back and I think Connor will step right in and add a lot for us. Most importantly, we’ve got Foster behind them.”
Filling the net never seems to be a problem at UNH. The Wildcat lineup has included a 40-point scorer for the last 20 years and it’ll be an upset of epic proportions if this year’s group doesn’t make it 21. Mike Sislo, Peter LeBlanc, and Bobby Butler all broke the 30-point barrier last year. Phil DeSimone, Steve Moses and Paul Thompson will be moving into even bigger roles.
Freshmen Austin Block, Dalton Speelman, Greg Burke (a native son and Washington draft pick),
and John Henrion (from the national program) will get their chances to break into the lineup in a significant way.
“We’re going to be fine up front with Bobby Butler and Peter LeBlanc, two senior forwards,” Umile says. “We’ve got DeSimone, Sislo, and I really like the freshman class. I know they’re freshmen but I think they will add some offense to our forward group. So I’m comfortable with our forwards.”
It may take some time for the pieces to all fit together, but Umile likes what he sees.
“Hopefully we’ll continue to compete at the top,” he says. “That’s our goal. It hasn’t changed. Even though we’ll be young, I think we’ll be able to do it.
“We’ll rely on Brian early on, but I like our team. I like the leadership on the team. I’m looking forward to the season.”