Is all-around strength making New Hampshire the team to beat in Hockey East?

Their record stands at 10-1-2 inside the conference and they hold at least two games in hand over their closest competition in the Hockey East standings. With a strong offense, defense, and special teams, they have no perceptible weakness.

I speak, of course, of the New Hampshire Wildcats. Their only league loss came on Nov. 20 against Boston University, and only that loss and earlier ties with Massachusetts and Northeastern sully an otherwise perfect league record. Whether it’s putting a team away early like they did against Massachusetts-Lowell on Friday or exploding in the third period like they did one night later against Massachusetts (or against Maine before the break), the Wildcats just keep on winning.

Jeff Silengo (Melissa Wade)
New Hampshire's Jeff Silengo is one of the team's contributing younger players (photo: Melissa Wade).

Boston College remains tied with UNH in the standings but gives up two games in hand. Next comes BU, four points back and down a game in hand. Then Merrimack, six points down.

Hey, there’s a long way to go between now and March 5, when the regular season wraps up with a UNH-BC home-and-home finale, but the Wildcats have positioned themselves as well as possible for a fourth regular season title in the last five years.

“It’s been a good group to coach and we’ve had a good first half,” coach Dick Umile says. “I feel good about our team playing well at the end of the game, getting it done in third periods and winning some important games.”

Senior forwards Paul Thompson, Mike Sislo and Phil DeSimone have lived up to expectations and then some, ranking first, tied for third, and tied for fifth, respectively, in overall league scoring. They form one of the most feared lines in college hockey.

“The most important thing that they provide is their leadership and their experience,” Umile says. “We’ve got some young guys that have chipped in some important goals, but this line has done it consistently because of their experience and their maturity.

“They don’t get rattled, they stay with it and they do whatever they have to do, whether it’s Paul Thompson finding DeSimone on the back door or vice versa or Mike Sislo scoring. It’s experience. They’ve been through it, they’re best friends and there’s good chemistry between the three of them.”

Of course, UNH having exceptional forwards is nothing new. Snipers and playmakers seem to grow like weeds in Durham. Year after year, Wildcats players are among the Hockey East scoring leaders. Only once since 1995 have they not placed in the top five in Hockey East goal scoring or points. (That lone exception was 2001.) Yes, that does speak to the recruiting machine that Umile has built, but it also speaks to the player development and offensive systems put in place.

“We allow them to be creative,” Umile says. “They’re skilled forwards; they can do some special things handling the puck. Sometimes it might come back to bite you because we might turn the puck over and [the other team] transitions against us.

“But more often than not, our [top forwards] manage the puck pretty well and make some plays, whether it’s one-on-one or the two-on-one chances they create a lot.

“These three have gotten better at it. They can shoot the puck and go in there when they have a scoring opportunity with confidence.”

Defenseman Blake Kessel, a returning first-team All-Hockey East and second-team All-America selection, is once again providing an offensive dimension from the blue line. To no one’s surprise, he ranks second in overall scoring for league defensemen.

“He scored a huge goal for us this weekend,” Umile says. “It kind of put the game away after we had just gone ahead. He’s a second wave for our offense, getting into the rush. He’s like another forward out there offensively for us.”

The strength to this team, however, goes beyond those four upperclassmen, all of whom were expected to excel. Sophomores John Henrion and Brett Kostolansky have emerged as forces in their own right. Henrion scored four points as a freshman but already has seven goals and 12 points this year. Kostolansky, a defenseman, has already matched last season’s 12 points, adding in his first four collegiate goals. Both sophomores sport strong plus/minus rankings almost on par with the team’s stars.

“Henrion has played very, very well for us from the start of the season,” Umile says. “He’s a big, strong kid with the ability to score goals. He’s kind of like a Bobby Butler, hopefully a young Bobby Butler, another Mike Sislo. He’s got a pro shot, he’s pretty accurate with it and he’s played well for us at both ends of the ice.

“Kostolansky is a kid who is quietly one of the top defensemen in the league in my opinion. It’s what he does with the puck [that makes him special]. He defends very well, and he always finds ways to make the pass or the breakout or the transition.

“We’ve got him on the power play and he’s scored [a couple] goals already there. He’s only a sophomore, but he’s provided a lot back there along with Kessel. They’re a good combination.”

Then in net, there’s Matt DiGirolamo. Unless you’re just returning from some other planet or country, you’ve heard of his exploits: a 2.24 goals-against average, a .926 save percentage and some mighty outrageous saves at some mighty important times.

Keep in mind, though, that Brian Foster was so dominant the last two years, DiGirolamo saw almost no game action. Last season he recorded all of one decision. Folks like yours truly wondered whether Umile’s preseason confidence in him was well-founded or whistling past the graveyard.

“Our coaching staff and team knew what he was capable of doing,” Umile says. “He’d been practicing with us for two years and even though he’d only played in a limited number of games, he could make unbelievable saves in practice against some very good forwards.

“He’s very quick, very reactionary. He reminds me of Chris Terreri. He made a save the other night on the back door that was incredible.

“The key save at a key time in the game is what he does for us. He’s doing it consistently this year. We’re not surprised.

“He’s one of the character guys on our team. He’s a great kid, a fierce competitor and it’s just terrific that it’s happening for him.”

It looks like this team is the complete package. Strength after strength and no discernible weakness. Second in the league in team offense. Third in team defense. Second in special teams net.

What’s not to like?

“Obviously, we’re pleased with the way the team has played,” Umile says. “We’ve got a ways to go, it’s just a little over the halfway mark here, but we’re capable of doing a lot of good things. We just need to do them consistently and play one game at a time.

“We want to consistently get better playing off the puck defensively. That’s an area that we’ve been working at and hopefully we’re getting better at it.

“Offensively, when we get an opportunity to make some plays, we’re capable of doing it. We’re pleased right now, but we’ve got a ways to go.

“It’s a good group to coach and we’ve got good balance. The younger kids — [Jeff] Silengo, Henrion, and [Mike] Borisenok — are starting to play well for us and that’s a good thing along with our seniors.”

Checking the PairWise

Don’t look now, but check out who’s in the No. 12 position in the PairWise.

The Merrimack Warriors. The 10-4-4 Merrimack Warriors. If the season ended today, they’d be in the national tournament along with BC and UNH, not BU and not Maine.

Where are those outspoken fans who were writing me several years ago, wishing Merrimack would leave Hockey East? Perhaps licking their wounds after the Warriors just beat their team.

There’s still a ton of time left in this season, but coach Mark Dennehy and all the Warriors have earned everyone’s respect. And then some.

(To give credit where credit is due, I first saw reference to Merrimack’s position in the PairWise in this week’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback.)

And finally, not that it has anything to do with anything but …

I mentioned before the holiday break about the novel I sold to WestSide Books. Well, I have a few more details to offer now.

Cracking the Ice will appear in May of this year and it has plenty of hockey in it. WestSide Books specializes in Young Adult fiction so it will be listed in that category. (That’s also why it’s coming out in the spring, because that’s prime time for YA sales as parents stock up on books for their teenagers to read during the summer.) However, adults will love it as much as teenagers.

The first recommendation from an award-winning writer has come back and she said, “I started reading your amazing Cracking the Ice manuscript and could not put it down. Jessie Stackhouse’s generosity, hope, and intelligence touched my heart. … Usually I go to bed early; however, I kept reading Cracking the Ice until I turned to the last page.”

It ain’t just me, folks. I’m very proud of this book and expect you’ll like it a lot.

It isn’t listed for presale yet anywhere, but when it is I’ll be sure to let you know. I’ll have more details over the next couple of months, but since it’ll be coming out during the college hockey offseason, you can bookmark my writing website to be sure you don’t miss anything.