In 1985, New Hampshire coach Dick Umile was coaching at Watertown (Mass.) High School when he got a call from an old friend with an opportunity.
The call was from Mike McShane. McShane has just been hired to replace Steve Sterling as bench boss at Providence and he wanted Umile to be his assistant.
When Umile arrived in the fall of 1985, he knew he was about to coach a pretty good team of hockey players. A year earlier, Providence won the inaugural Hockey East championship in dramatic fashion, beating Boston College in double overtime in the title game. The Friars went onto the Frozen Four that year and lost in the national title game to Rensselaer.
And while the Friars had lost a bunch of their scoring punch from the previous season, one player returning had become a household name on the Providence campus: Chris Terreri. During the Friars’ playoff run in 1984-85, it was Terreri, a Providence native himself, who led the team. Twice he recorded 60-plus save games in the postseason and nearly stole the national championship for the club that finished the season just six games above .500.
Since that 1985-86 season in Providence, Umile has had the opportunity to coach a number of great goaltenders, including the likes of Ty Conklin, Mike Ayers and Kevin Regan. None, though, reminded him much of Terreri … until now.
Enter Matt DiGirolamo. Prior to the season, the UNH faithful probably didn’t know much about the junior netminder. The last two seasons, he’s sat backup to Brian Foster, who last year earned All-America honors. But Umile knew there was something special about the Ambler, Pa., native that took him right back to 1985.
“This kid reminds me of Chris Terreri,” Umile said. “He’s about the same size. He’s really quick. He’s a real competitor.
“[Terreri] was just a tremendous goaltender. After spending a year with Matt, he just looked like him.”
The fact that it has taken some time for DiGirolamo to become a day-to-day starter isn’t surprising. Foster was a continually improving goaltender who took over the top spot two years ago when Regan graduated. His consistent play led the Wildcats to back-to-back NCAA regional finals as well as the Hockey East regular season title a season ago.
But the patient DiGirolamo waited for his opportunity and in the first month of the season has made the most of it. After a tough loss at Miami to open the season, the junior bounced back with a victory the following night followed by a pair of ties against Michigan and Northeastern. Since then, he has reeled off three straight victories against solid opponents — Cornell, Boston College and Massachusetts-Lowell — with all three wins coming on the road.
With a 4-1-2 record and the No. 9 ranking in the current USCHO.com poll, success for this year’s Wildcats team hasn’t been in the net alone. Umile’s club has been potent offensively at times, reeling off six goals in the second game against Miami and seven on the road at Cornell. Both of those teams were top 10 clubs at the time.
Pacing the offense has been the top line of pivot Phil DeSimone with wingers Paul Thompson and Mike Sislo. But while that line had great expectations coming into the season, it has been the second line — dubbed the sophomore line by Umile — that has helped carry the club.
The second-year trio of Dalton Speelman (4 goals, 3 assists, 7 points), John Henrion (4-3–7) and Austin Block (1-3–4) have made a significant contribution offensively and been a major difference maker in the early going.
But while the Wildcats can score goals, they also proved they can win the low-scoring game as evident last weekend with identical 2-1 victories over BC and Lowell to give the team a 2-0-1 start in Hockey East.
“I think we ended up [the first month] better than I thought we’d be,” said Umile, who knew opening with six of the team’s first seven games on the road was the biggest challenge. “Coming out of this stretch [4-1-2] is good. Now five of our next six games are at home.”
Certainly, there are no guarantees for the Wildcats heading back to the friendly confines of the Whittemore Center. But if the offense continues to click and DiGirolamo continues his best Chris Terreri impersonation, this is a team that certainly could be making noise come March.
As mentioned above, New Hampshire has seen some offensive explosion from its sophomore class in the first month of the season. Other teams, though, have successfully mined a younger class for their success.
There are a number of rookies making strides in the opening month of the season. Leading the way have been two highly-touted recruits at Boston University — Charlie Coyle and Sahir Gill. Both players lead Hockey East rookies with eight points.
Last Saturday, Coyle scored the tying goal late in the third period to keep BU undefeated with a 2-2 tie with Maine. Gill was the hot hand in BU’s opening weekend at the Ice Breaker tournament, scoring five points in the opening two games.
UMass-Lowell may not have the same success as BU in the win column, but the River Hawks have seen early contributions from their freshman class. Defenseman Chad Ruhwedel is tied for the team league in point scoring with seven (1 goal, 6 assists), while fellow freshmen Josh Holstrom (six assists) and Joseph Pendenza (four goals) have also had a major hand in the offense.
The River Hawks won’t depend solely upon rookies for goal scoring. In net, the only goaltenders to see time thus far are freshman with Doug Carr leading the way. Carr has been impressive in his seven appearances, despite posting just a 2-3-1 record. The rookie from Hanover, Mass., boasts a .923 save percentage and a 2.62 goals-against average, stats that at this point should have earned him a better fate.
Another team relying on youth in goal is Maine. The Black Bears’ Dan Sullivan is one of three goaltenders to see time for Tim Whitehead’s club and, of the three, has posted the best numbers. He’s 2-1-1 with a 2.34 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage and last Saturday made a season-best 28 stops at Boston University as the teams played to a 2-2 deadlock.
This is an interesting weekend for Hockey East as the eight teams playing will take a route more familiar in the WCHA and CCHA.
All eight teams in action will play two-game series against the same opponent, something that is much more frequent in Hockey East in the second half of the season. The scheduling quirk, though, sets up three two-game series in the same barn and one home-and-home.
The lone home-and-home series is between BU and Merrimack. This could prove a critical measuring stick for the Warriors who, as Dave Hendrickson mentioned in Tuesday’s blog, are looking for improvement on the road. Long gone are the days where a two-game series against Merrimack is an automatic four points for BU, which will have to continue to play solid hockey if it wants to remain unbeaten come weekend’s end.
The league’s three northernmost teams will host two-game series at home. Maine will face a struggling Northeastern team for two games. Alfond Arena once was a land of death for the Huskies but two seasons ago Northeastern swept the Black Bears at home. That, though, was a Maine team that struggled to win anywhere, forget about at home, and those days are but a distant memory for the fans in Orono.
Vermont, itself looking for its first win, will have its hands full with a BC squad that hasn’t shown the consistency many expected from this team in recent weeks. BC hasn’t swept a league weekend yet, but the Gutterson Fieldhouse has hardly been an easy place for the Eagles, who are 1-4-2 at Vermont since the Catamounts joined Hockey East in 2005. BC’s only league win at Gutterson came in its first visit on Nov. 13, 2005 (or five years ago this weekend).
The final league series sees New Hampshire hosting Massachusetts. Similar to Vermont, UMass is still seeking its first win and will run up against a red-hot Wildcats team that hosts its first home weekend series of the year.