Depth of scoring may put New Hampshire in first to stay

Going into last weekend, New Hampshire had the toughest remaining schedule of Hockey East’s top five teams. The Wildcats had six league games remaining against nationally ranked opponents (two each against Maine, Merrimack, and Boston College) compared to four for Merrimack and Maine, two for BC, and none for Boston University.

The Boston College Eagles defeated the University of New Hampshire Wildcats 8-6 on Saturday, November 15, 2008, at Kelley Rink at Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Matt DiGirolamo and New Hampshire came away with an important sweep of Maine last weekend (photo: Melissa Wade).

Well, the Wildcats took care of business in a big way, sweeping Maine and using one of their two games in hand over BC to move into uncontested ownership of first place.

How they did it is may speak even louder about their chances to win the regular season title for the fourth time in five years and excel in the postseason.

For much of the year, four players have dominated the scoring for UNH: the seemingly unstoppable line of Paul Thompson, Phil DeSimone, and Mike Sislo along with star defenseman Blake Kessel. All three forwards have been among Hockey East’s top scorers this year — Thompson is tied with Niagara’s Paul Zanette as the nation’s No. 1 goalscorer — and Kessel leads league defensemen in scoring.

Now, however, UNH’s scoring depth is emerging. The all-sophomore line of Dalton Speelman, Austin Block and John Henrion has scored seven goals in the three games since it was formed. Freshman Kevin Goumas recorded two goals and an assist over the weekend.

Indeed, the Wildcats were in position to win the Saturday night game on Thompson’s lightning strike with 16 seconds remaining because of the other lines. That was “the big line’s” first goal.

“It was an awesome game for our team,” Thompson said. “That’s huge for our team, having depth [in lines] one through four. It’s going to pay off because we’re not going to get it from just one or two lines every night. Other guys are going to pull through and have big games, so that’s huge for us.”

The Wildcats were able to savor the sweep over their archrival for a couple days but face another huge task ahead of them again this week in the form of a home-and-home series with 11th-ranked Merrimack. In case you missed it, the Warriors are coming off an 11-2 thrashing of Massachusetts.

“You look at that score and you get the shakes,” UNH coach Dick Umile said.

The Wildcats know — or they had better know — that everything they achieved last weekend can be ruined if they don’t play exceptional hockey against Merrimack.

“We’re going to have our hands full with them,” Thompson said. “They’ve come a long way in their program. They’ve got some really good players and they’re tough to play against.

“They’ve always had some good players, but I think they’re playing with confidence now and they’re buying into their system and everybody on their team is focused. I think they’ve gotten a little more talent [since my freshman year], but they’ve always been a really hard team to play against.

“We never had big wins over them. They were always close games my freshman and sophomore years, but we usually pulled them out. Now they’ve got some more offensive firepower and they’re one of the best teams in the league. Obviously, their national ranking and place in the standings shows that.

“We know that if we lay an egg there and don’t have our best weekend, this weekend [against Maine] won’t mean as much anymore.”

Maine’s chances

The Black Bears clearly suffered the deepest wounds of any Hockey East team last weekend, as noted in the weekend recap. They’re now five points out of home ice and rank tied for 22nd in the PairWise.

Is home ice out of reach? No. Six of their final eight games are against teams near the bottom of the standings, two each against Massachusetts, Massachusetts-Lowell and Vermont. The other two are at home against Merrimack, a series they may need to sweep.

From this eye, however, an even bigger concern lies beyond the standings. This is a very skilled offensive team. The goaltending is another story.

To some extent, that shouldn’t be a surprise, given Scott Darling’s dismissal from the team last June. Darling had been the man between the pipes in 54 games over his freshman and sophomore years, but had also been suspended three times, including all of last year’s playoffs.

June is an awful time for a dismissal in terms of recruiting, even if the writing was on the wall. That’s not to second guess the decision at all. It would appear that coach Tim Whitehead had no choice. The point is that the bluest chip goaltending recruits would have looked elsewhere when Darling was still dominating the position. In the words of the legendary coach, it is what it is.

Darling’s replacements — sophomore Shawn Sirman and freshmen Dan Sullivan and Martin Ouellette — haven’t gotten the collective job done. Maine’s team save percentage is .882; its opponents is .912.

The oldest axiom in hockey is that you can’t win at any level without good goaltending. Maine’s netminders failed the eye test last weekend. Sirman’s fumbled rebound on UNH’s fourth goal was perhaps the most egregious error of all, unless you count Thompson’s game-winner as poor goaltending instead of exceptional goal scoring.

But a weekend is a small sample size. (Otherwise, UNH fans might need to be concerned about the unusually juicy rebounds Matt DiGirolamo gave up.)

But a season-long save percentage disparity of .882 vs. .912 is no small sample size. Barring some miraculous emergence in the nets, the Black Bears won’t be going very far this year no matter how hard they try. (Last weekend they tried very, very hard.)

Husky heaven?

Next Monday’s Beanpot championship game will be merely the first of three straight games between Northeastern and Boston College, but you can guess which one the folks on Huntington Avenue will be focused on.

The Huskies haven’t won a Beanpot since 1988, a fact that players and fans alike are tired of hearing. One could argue that at least they’ve been knocking on the door: trailing 3-2 in the third period two years ago and going on the power play, losing in overtime in 2005, and losing by two-goal margins in 2002 and 1999. Contrast that with Harvard, which next Monday will be playing in its 12th consolation game in the last 13 years.

Still, Huskies fans don’t want to hear it, any more than Red Sox fans before 2004 wanted to hear about the Kansas City Royals or the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“Unfortunately, the memories of Northeastern people over the last 20 years are of near misses,” NU coach Greg Cronin candidly admitted after the 4-0 victory over Harvard put his team into the title game. “The fans come when you win.”

When Cronin first arrived on campus six years ago, neither the wins nor the fans were there in significant numbers.

“[The program] needed a lot of work infrastructurally in addition to me getting the fans back,” he recalled. “We started to win incrementally. We started to fill the building and last year we had good crowds.”

The season ended on a down note, however, with the Huskies missing the playoffs by a single point (while also missing home ice by four points). Then they got off to a 1-7-2 start.

“This year they’ve stopped showing up,” Cronin said. “You see a reflection of [that] when you’re on the bench and you look into that left corner [of the Garden]. There wasn’t nearly as many black shirts as there was a year ago.”

Cronin then made a dangerous admission.

“I liked the Yankees over the Red Sox,” he said, quickly adding, “Don’t kill me now.” He then explained why. “I liked the Yankees because they would always win and the Red Sox would lose. I think [Northeastern fans] have a little bit of that mentality of, ‘When are they going to win this damn thing?’ They’re sick of it and I don’t blame them.”

If the Huskies can pull off an upset next Monday over the No. 1 team in the country, though, Cronin won’t have any sympathy for sick-of-it Huskies fans who miss the event.

“They better show up,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to give them T-shirts to get them to show up, either.

“This is twice in the last three years that we’re in the final. We’re going to have a tremendous opponent to play against.”

And what will the reaction be if Northeastern can end the drought?

“They’ll have to get both the NUPD and the Boston Police on our campus if we win,” Cronin said.

Quote of the week

After UNH’s Thompson scored the game-winner with 16 seconds remaining on an unconscious shot off the goaltender’s pads from below the goal line, Maine’s Whitehead said, “I’m looking forward to his graduation.”

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

Happy birthday, Nicole!