The Detonators

detonator (de’ to na’ ter) n. something that explodes
— Random House College Dictionary

No team in the East explodes to a win like New Hampshire. The Wildcats, second only to Michigan with 5.29 goals a game, have mastered the destructive art of blowing teams away; not just with two or three goals in a period, but four or five.

Early in November, tied 2-2 in the third period with a Northeastern team that had just knocked off Michigan State, UNH scored five times in slightly more than nine minutes to win 7-3. Two weeks later, trailing Maine 2-0, they exploded to another victory with five second-period goals. At the end of the month they repeated that trick, knocking off Vermont with a five-goal second period that erased a 2-1 deficit.

But no game better typifies their ability to score goals in demoralizing clusters than their performance against Wisconsin at the Badger Showdown. Coming off a two-week holiday break that often turns legs into rubber and finely tuned machines into misfiring jalopies, UNH stunk up the joint for the first 10 minutes, falling behind 4-0 while being outshot 16-1.

An opening like that in front of 12,195 rabid Wisconsin fans is pouring chum into shark-infested waters before a leisurely swim. Badger fans, the Great White Sharks of college hockey, responded with frenzied derision.

Not to worry. The Wildcats promptly scored five goals in less than eight minutes, and held a 5-4 lead by the end of the first period. At the Bradley Center one could hear a pin drop.

Six Detonators — Eric Boguniecki, Tom Nolan, Mark Mowers, Eric Nickulas, Derek Bekar and Jason Krog — light the fuses of Wildcat explosions. Prior to a Nolan knee injury that sidelined him for a month, all six placed among Hockey East’s top ten scorers.

That scoring prowess has vaulted UNH from last year’s 12-18-4 record to 16-5-0 and a top-ten national ranking.

“Obviously teams can’t focus on one line,” says UNH coach Dick Umile. “We can send out two lines of players that are a threat to score every time they’re on the ice. Along with our freshman line, we constantly have players out there that if you give them any kind of opportunity, they can put the puck in the net.”

Critical to the team’s success has also been their attention to defense.

“Basically they’re playing for the team first,” says Umile. “The biggest thing that this team has done is to buy into playing defense. Players will tell you their hard work defensively has given them an opportunity to generate scoring opportunities, because good defense creates good offense.”

Eric Boguniecki: “They call me Showtime”

“I enjoy getting the crowd out of their seats,” says Boguniecki, voted last year’s Most Exciting Player by the Friends of UNH Hockey. “I live for that stuff; they call me Showtime. I like to get the crowd into it because they get the whole team into it. When you hear the crowd going nuts, it makes the players want to get that goal or make a great defensive play.”

Even so, Boguniecki, a co-captain and the only senior Detonator, recognizes that he can’t be “Showtime” all the time.

“Right now maybe I don’t have the points that I’d like to have, but as a captain there are other areas that you have to focus on,” says Boguniecki, whose not-too-shabby 27 points in 21 games rank eighth in the league. “If you’re worried about goals, probably you get them, but right now I’m trying to play good defense, improve my all-around game, and be a good leader. Maybe that’s taken away some of my points, but I’m not worried about that. The points will come.”

Teammate Tom Nolan, who joined UNH as part of Boguniecki’s recruiting class but redshirted a year, confirms Boguniecki’s commitment to an all-around game. “When we came in as freshmen,” says Nolan, “Bogey and I were just offense. That’s all we thought about. In the four years since then we’ve learned to play defense.

“That’s Bogey’s main goal right now, and I think he’s done a great job of that. And his leadership is unbelievable.”

Boguniecki, a preseason All-Hockey East selection and a St. Louis Blues draft pick, may only be 5-8, but he packs 195 muscular pounds onto that frame. His compact power results in an aggressive style of play.

“Sometimes I find myself hitting like a football player,” he says, which surprises no one who saw him on the gridiron during prep school. “Football was a great help for me physically, and improved my balance on the ice.”

The resulting package generates comparisons to the feisty Theo Fleury of the Calgary Flames, a player Boguniecki patterns himself after. Considering Fleury’s ability to score goals, create assists and hold his own in the NHL’s physical wars despite being the league’s smallest player, the comparison seems apt indeed.

Tom Nolan: “A healthy Tom Nolan is one of the most exciting players in the league”

The word “healthy” in Umile’s description above says it all. Not since his freshman year has the 5-10, 175-pound junior played more than 27 games in a season. Four games into what would have been his sophomore year, Nolan suffered a bruised spleen that sidelined him for the season. After redshirting that year, Nolan came back to average a point a game last season, but still missed five contests due to a separated shoulder. This year, in perhaps the unkindest cut of all, Nolan led Hockey East with 17 points in eight games until felled by a knee injury that sidelined him for a month. Even so, he now totals 24 points in just 14 games, good for 13th in the league.

“I never was hurt before I got here,” says Nolan. “I don’t know what it is. I guess it’s just bad luck. It’s real tough going up in the stands [and sitting out]. It’s probably the worst thing a player can go through. The only thing that helped this year was that the team was doing well.”

Nolan, who Umile calls “one of the strongest kids on the team,” worked with former teammate Steve Pleau to improve his durability. “This summer we were on a really intense workout with a lot of work on the legs,” says Nolan before adding wistfully, “It’s just unfortunate that I hurt my knee.”

Before the injury, and since his return, Nolan has dazzled fans with his speed and finesse. “One-on-one, he’s as skilled as any player in the country,” says Umile.

Nolan, who shares Boguniecki’s admiration for Fleury, is also focusing on his defense. “I talked to the coach and one of my goals was to become one of the best defensive players in the league. [Before the injury] I thought I was playing really good defense. I think my offensive numbers have gone up because of that.”

Mark Mowers: “I try to play like Pavel Bure”

“Mark has great lateral movement,” says linemate Boguniecki. “He has a great first three steps. And he’s got great playmaking ability.”

Small wonder then that the 5-11, 180-pound Mowers tries to emulate Bure. “I try to play as close to him as possible,” he says and then laughs, underscoring the difficulty of measuring up to that ideal.

Though not yet Bure, Mowers has earned awards every year in the league, starting with Hockey East’s Rookie of the Year honor.

“I was really excited,” says Mowers, now a junior. “I had never really won any major awards like that in my life. I know I worked hard throughout my freshman year, but I really didn’t expect it because there were a lot of good players out there. But it really helped build my confidence for the following year.”

Mowers also garnered the Friends of UNH Hockey’s Most Exciting Player Award in his freshman campaign. Unlike “Showtime” Boguniecki, Mowers doesn’t think about trying to make the exciting play. If it happens, it happens. If not, then he just concentrates on the little things.

“Each guy realizes that things like winning faceoffs, playing defense, putting the extra time into the weight room and backchecking the right person make a big difference,” says Mowers.

Last year, his sophomore year, Mowers earned All-Hockey East honors and was voted by his teammates co-MVP with since-graduated defenseman Todd Hall. “Winning an award that’s voted by your teammates really makes you feel good, knowing that the guys look up to you like that,” he says.

Everyone certainly looks up to Mowers’ ability to break games open with short-handed goals. Last year he had five; this year, he already has three.

“I just try to think: if I were on the power play, what I would be doing with the puck,” says Mowers. “I just try to read their minds and anticipate what they’re going to do before they do it.”

With 15 goals and 14 assists, good for fourth among Hockey East scorers, Mowers is certainly living up to this year’s preseason All-Hockey East selection.

Eric Nickulas: “Probably the most powerful forward in Hockey East”

“When he’s out there people feel his presence. He gets most of his goals just by hitting people. He’s a Cam Neely type of player,” Boguniecki continues.

Early this season Nickulas, a junior drafted by the Boston Bruins, notched his 50th career goal in just 78 games — very Neely-like numbers. He now totals 16 goals and 11 assists in 21 games.

“It almost seems like he scores every night,” says Umile. “He’s a prolific goal-scorer who can skate and has a pro shot. Sometimes because of Boguniecki and Mowers he goes unnoticed — although not by his teammates or the coaches — but we wouldn’t be where we’re at right now without the production and commitment of Eric Nickulas.”

The 6-1, 195-pound Nickulas didn’t just inherit his strength and great shot. “I had to work on a lot of it,” he says. “It just doesn’t come easy. You have to spend long hours in the weight room and doing off-ice training.”

Nickulas also works with his linemate Jason Krog. The two share trade secrets of their specialties, Nickulas on shooting and Krog on passing. The results speak for themselves. Nickulas already has 11 assists, one short of last year’s total while Krog has 14 goals after scoring only four all last year.

Nickulas also shares Neely’s power-play prowess. Last year, Nickulas rocketed home 11 man-advantage scores. This year only two of his team-leading 16 goals have come on the power play, in part because of changing roles. Last year a UNH power play meant Mowers, Boguniecki and Nickulas hopping onto the ice with Nickulas the lead sniper. This year, however, after experimenting with five of the forwards as one power-play unit, Umile decided that its susceptibility to short-handed goals combined with the attractive possibility of two stellar units dictated a change. Now, the freshest of the two lines, Boguniecki-Bekar-Mowers or Krog-Nolan-Nickulas, goes out first, knowing that the other unit isn’t far behind.

Derek Bekar: “A combination of Nickulas and Mowers”

“Derek’s got great reach, great size, and a really great shot,” says Boguniecki.

“He’s a combination of Nickulas and Mowers,” says Umile. “He’s got deceptive speed. His stride is long. It doesn’t look like he’s quick, but he’s very quick.”

In a characteristic understatement, the 6-2, 175-pound Bekar adds, “I guess for a big kid, I can skate pretty well.”

Bekar, a sophomore, was named to Hockey East’s All-Rookie team last year, clinching the spot with a late-season run. “It took some time to get adjusted to the strength of the players and the speed,” he says. “But most of it was just confidence and jelling with my linemates.”

Bekar shares both Nickulas’s intention to improve his playmaking skills and the entire team’s dedication to defense. A St. Louis Blues draft pick, he continues to work on his shot and overall strength.

Although he has fallen out of the top ten in scoring, his 12 goals and 10 assists are still good for 14th place, and put him behind only Krog, Maine’s Steve Kariya and BC’s Marty Reasoner among Hockey East sophomores.

Jason Krog: “Unbelievable vision of the ice”

Other than his teammates and coaches, few expected Jason Krog to be a major performer in Hockey East this season. Last year he scored only four goals to go with 16 assists.

“He was put in a tough situation,” says Umile. “Because of injuries we had to put him on one of our top lines. He didn’t really have the confidence and was more worried about messing up his linemates. This year he has the confidence. Nobody around here is surprised at what he’s done.”

“I did a lot of training this summer and I also worked on my shot,” says the 5-11, 180-pound sophomore. “When we got here this year I did a lot of work with our goalie coach on shooting and Eric Nickulas helps me too.”

The results are stunning. The kid who struggled for four goals last year now trails only BU’s Chris Drury in Hockey East scoring with 14 goals and 22 assists in 21 overall games.

“He’s a tremendous passer,” says Boguniecki. “He’s got unbelievable vision of the ice. We like to compare him to Adam Oates because he sees the ice so well.”

Krog developed his talents playing with a succession of snipers in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League before coming to New Hampshire. Those pairings helped him learn to anticipate a teammate’s moves and refined his playmaking skills.

Krog also credits team leaders like Boguniecki for their help. “They’ll tell you if you did something wrong, but it’s always constructive,” he says. “And if you did something right, they’ll give you a pat on the back. You look up to them because of the way that they play. They’re leaders on and off the ice.”

The Stretch Run

During their school-record 14 game winning streak, the Wildcats seemed to score at will. In the last few games, however, hot goaltenders and strong defenses have limited UNH’s scoring output. Such are the peaks and valleys of a long season.

“I don’t expect to be scoring five or six goals every game,” says Umile. “You’ve got to win the 3-2 and 4-3 games. To do that you have to play strong defense and be opportunistic. We just need to pick up our play and get back the little edge we had before.”

Of the six Detonators, only Nolan and Boguniecki have a playoff win. Last year Maine swept UNH out of the Hockey East playoffs, and the year before Providence knocked them out of the one-game league quarterfinals before Denver embarrassed them 9-2 in the NCAA tournament. Their need for playoff success is not lost on the upperclassmen.

“It’s huge,” says Nolan. “None of the guys on the team has won a playoff game since my freshman year. Bogey and I will just have to motivate the guys and let them know what winning playoff games is all about. We have the confidence. We know we’re just as good as any team in the league. We just have to put our nose to the grindstone and play hard. National championship teams don’t go through the motions.”

“The playoffs are a big focus,” adds Boguniecki. “If we don’t make the Garden this year, then the first half meant nothing. We can’t accept anything less than winning a Hockey East championship and making an NCAA appearance.”

Let the explosions resume.