OK, how many of you out there thought before the season started that New Hampshire would lose its first four games — three of them against Hockey East foes — and would own an 0-4-1 record?
You in the back with your hand up … you’re lying.
How many of you foresaw the Wildcats getting shut out in the first two games and scoring only a power-play goal in the third one?
How many of you projected them to be in last place in Hockey East at this point, on the wrong end of a 14-1 scoring differential?
That’s a liar, liar, pants-on-fire hat trick, pal.
It’s hard to imagine anyone seeing this start coming for the Wildcats. In past seasons when they’ve gotten off to slow starts, the damage has primarily been in nonconference games, hurting them at season’s end in the PairWise Rankings but not so much in the league standings.
Losing to Boston University in the season opener was no shock. Even the 5-0 final score shouldn’t have raised eyebrows much since it was a 2-0 game going into the third period.
Getting shut out by Northeastern 4-0 the following weekend was a surprise, however. Following that with the home opener against Boston College in retrospect seems like abysmal timing given the 5-1 result. BC was not the team UNH needed right there.
Stung by the three losses and the eye-popping goal differential, UNH headed out West to take on St. Cloud State. The Wildcats offense finally got on track, but allowed four goals on the penalty kill, resulting in a 7-5 loss. Only a comeback from a 2-0 deficit in the following game prevented a total five-game whitewash; UNH headed home having salvaged a 3-3 tie.
The season is barely under way, but the statistics to this point boggle the mind. Including all games, the Wildcats rank last in team offense (1.80 goals per game), second to last in team defense (4.80 goals against per game), and last on the penalty kill (68.4 percent).
It’s as if the hockey gods who have blessed New Hampshire with regular season titles three of the last five years decided this time to cross-check UNH coach Dick Umile in the back of the head.
“It’s hard to believe,” Umile says. “First of all, I thought we would have scored more. We’ve had an awful lot of opportunities in the games that we’ve lost. That being said, defensively we’ve been giving up goals so that’s a bad combination, not being able to put the puck in the net and giving up [all those] goals.
“It’s been a little bit of everything. It’s been very obviously disappointing. The guys have been battling. It’s been kind of crazy what’s gone on, but no excuses. We’ve got to find a way to play better defensively. We just have to find a way to play 60 minutes.”
Clearly, the blame game points in many directions. The offense in the first three games. The team defense at St. Cloud. The penalty kill in the first game out there.
But it’s hard not to also point a finger toward the UNH nets, where Matt Di Girolamo played so well last year, starting every game and earning honorable mention Hockey East All-Star status while compiling a 2.44 goals against average and a .923 save percentage.
This year? It’s a 5.20 GAA and a shocking .825 save percentage.
He played reasonably well at BU, but against Northeastern gave up three goals on six first-period shots. Granted, the Wildcats were guilty of turnovers, but when you’ve entered your senior year as one of the most highly regarded goaltenders in the country, more is expected. The Wildcats never got back in that game.
Against BC, UNH outshot the Eagles 40-25 but lost 5-1.
In the first game at St. Cloud, Di Girolamo gave up five goals on 24 shots over the first two periods, prompting Umile to make a change. Down 5-2, he called on sophomore Jeff Wyer. After the 7-5 loss (in reality, 6-5 with an empty-netter), Umile tapped Wyer for his first career collegiate start. The Wildcats once again fell behind early, this time 2-0, but battled back for the 3-3 tie.
“I pulled Matt the first night after the second period, after they got their fifth goal and they got that one late, with 40 seconds left,” Umile says. “I made the change and Jeff played a solid third period.
“I just made the decision to come back with him [on Saturday] and give him his first start. He played well and gave us an opportunity to win it. We had our chances and just didn’t put it away, but he gave us an opportunity to win it.”
Which is not to say that Umile will be exiling Di Girolamo to the end of the bench.
“I still have an awful lot of confidence in him,” Umile says. “He’s a competitor and he’ll get it back. It’s been a combination of things. A couple [soft goals] have gone in, but we’ve added to it the way we’ve played in our own end with some of the turnovers.
“It hasn’t been totally his fault that we’ve been giving up five goals a game. It’s probably a little bit of both, [goaltending and turnovers].”
UNH hosts 11th-ranked and undefeated Union (2-0-3) on Friday, followed by a rematch against Northeastern on Saturday. Since all of the first five games except the one against BC came on the road, a weekend of home cooking may be just what the doctor ordered.
And for those ready to jump off the UNH bandwagon, a recent history lesson is in order. Two years ago, the Wildcats opened the season 2-6-2. While admittedly most of the damage was outside of Hockey East, that start still didn’t prevent them from going on an 11-game unbeaten streak and another trip to the NCAA tournament.
It ain’t over yet.
“We’ve got to play good hockey,” Umile says. “If you’re going to win hockey games, you’ve got to play well. It’s all about us and how well we can play for 60 minutes.”
Merrimack: Same old, same old
Say hello to the ninth-ranked Merrimack Warriors. Say hello to the undefeated, 4-0 Warriors.
Same old, same old.
The shocking label for Merrimack is so last year. Or the year before.
The school that took it on the chin for so long is once again a team to be reckoned with, not just in Hockey East but also on the national stage. It’s as if Cinderella hasn’t been content to be the star of the ball; she’s refused to leave at midnight and isn’t allowing anything to get turned back into a pumpkin.
And good for her.
Merrimack was a fabulous story last year; the story this year may be the Warriors’ continued success.
For coach Mark Dennehy, the four wins are nice, but they’re just the beginning.
“You go into every game thinking you have a chance to win,” he says. “Whether you do or not depends upon how hard the guys are willing to play and how well you execute. But at the end of the day, you’re trying to get better every day.
“This time of year, it’s good to get off to a good start. You’re not going to win any championships in October or November, but you can put yourself out of the running if you don’t play well enough to win some games. We’re happy we’re 4-0, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Merrimack got to 4-0 by diving right in. The Warriors defeated Maine at Orono 2-1 without the benefit of so much as an exhibition game.
“Well, you can argue that it didn’t give me enough time to screw them up,” Dennehy quips before turning serious. “It’s a place where we haven’t had a lot of success in the win column. We’ve played well but sometimes not been rewarded. I know that our seniors had that marked on their calendars as a place that they’d never won, and I think that was important to them.
“As nervous or as uncomfortable as I was with playing a league game off the bat, if you’re going to play one then you want to play where there’s going to be energy. That’s as energized a fan base as there is in college hockey. It was just a matter of weathering their storms.”
In the games that followed, Merrimack prevailed in nonconference contests against Army and Connecticut as well as a 4-1 win over Northeastern.
“I’m happy about the way we’ve played since [Maine],” Dennehy says. “We’ve played better every game. That trend needs to continue.”
Dennehy looks around the league and sees young teams like Providence, Massachusetts-Lowell and, to a lesser extent, Vermont integrating a lot of new players into their lineups. Last year, those teams finished in the lower half of the league — the Friars and River Hawks missing the playoffs entirely — and likely will experience the inconsistencies of youth in the early going. But they should be much stronger in the second half.
“One of the advantages we have is we do have a lot of returning players,” Dennehy says. “We haven’t been reliant on new bodies to come in and understand systems and standard of play. So that’s been an advantage, but if we just think that that’s going to be enough to carry us throughout the year, we’re going to be really mistaken. We’ve got to continue to get better as a team.”
Fortunately, the Warriors appear every bit as hungry this year as last. The same players that carried them in the playoffs — Ryan Flanigan, Karl Stollery, Elliott Sheen, Carter Madsen and Mike Collins — are producing once again. There’s no sense of contentment with what was achieved last year. No easing up on the throttle.
While that may seem like a given, Dennehy played on a team, the 1990-91 BC Eagles, that he feels was too satisfied with its trip to the Frozen Four the previous year.
“My senior year at BC, we were No. 1 in the country for 19 weeks,” he recalls. “But at the end of the day, we were satisfied with the previous year and we weren’t willing to work as hard as we needed to. So I’ve been on guard for that with our players. I told them on Saturday after the UConn game, ‘We’re only four games into this.’
“What I’ve been happiest with is there hasn’t been a level of satisfaction. Our guys have come back and they still have something to prove. I still think that everyone else [in the sport] is waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“There’s still a large contingent in college hockey that thinks we were Stephane Da Costa and the seven dwarfs. There’s a lot to prove, and our guys to this point have played as if that were the case.”
• I may have been too hasty two weeks ago in the Monday weekend wrap-up when I said that this isn’t last year’s Boston University team. Reading the results so far, it looks like, Get up for UNH and win. Relax against Providence and lose. Get up for Denver and win. Relax against Holy Cross and lose.
• Nice bounce-back for Vermont, winning its second game at Minnesota 5-4 after getting thrashed 6-0 in the opener.
• BC sure seems to be motoring smoothly along, but will have to do without junior defenseman Patrick Wey, who underwent surgery to repair a severed tendon of his right foot. He’s expected to miss 6-8 weeks.
• Too bad Notre Dame’s T.J. Tynan will have graduated (if he stays all four years) by the time the Irish join Hockey East in 2013. In the NCAA tournament, I’ve loved watching him play.
Update: I had a brain cramp and double-counted this year. Tynan, if he stays, will be a senior during Notre Dame’s first year in Hockey East. So I might get a chance to see him all through that regular season after all. Thanks to Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna for catching the error.