Despite appearing in 11 straight NCAA tournaments, things at this point in the season look extremely grim for the New Hampshire Wildcats.
Very little has gone right for UNH. Offense is relatively non-existent. Defense has left to dry the Wildcats goaltenders. And, thus far, the goaltenders haven’t been able to bail this team out.
Sitting at 6-10-2, including a good-for-eighth-place 4-7-1 record in Hockey East and a miserable 0-6-2 record on the road, it is just about time for the Wildcats to push the panic button.
“I think it’s a combination of scoring opportunities for and against,” said UNH coach Dick Umile. “We’re finding ourselves out chancing teams but not winning hockey games.”
Offensively, numbers don’t seem to be going against the Wildcats. Two players already have 20 points (Stevie Moses and Nick Sorkin), but as Umile points out, even the offensive numbers for this team don’t tell the truth.
“It’s a combination of not putting the puck in the net when we have opportunities and we make a mistake and the puck is in the back of our net,” Umile said. “It’s not a good formula for success. It’s been a very disappointing, frustrating first half. One that we’re not accustomed to.
“The stats are a little misleading,” said Umile, referring to the fact that the team has had some offensive explosions, including a nine-goal outburst against Alabama-Huntsville and seven goals against Massachusetts.
Still, Umile doesn’t think this team has been without chances to score. If anything, it’s the lack of execution when those scoring chances arise that frustrates the veteran coach.
“I thought we’d get a little bit more scoring spread out. That hasn’t happened,” said Umile. “And it seems that if we make one or two mistakes or for two minutes in the game where we let up and the puck goes in. That’s been the frustrating side.”
Also frustrating has been goaltending. Matt DiGirolamo was highly touted returning as a senior but has an inflated 3.41 goals against average and a less-than-stellar .883 save percentage.
Umile is cautious not to point too much blame at the fourth-year netminder. But at the same time, it’s hard to overlook that this senior leader hasn’t lived up to expectations.
“Matty’s been such an important part of his program and it hasn’t been his best half,” Umile said. “There’s no question he’s very capable of being one of the top goaltenders. Hopefully that’s going to happen for him. It’s his senior year and the first half has been a combination of not being able to score and turning the puck over at bad times and it finds ways in.”
One thing that is very possible is a personnel change in net for UNH. Rookie Casey DeSmith played the team’s final game against Boston University and allowed just two goals on 34 shots. He then entered in relief of DiGirolamo last weekend against Brown and stopped a penalty shot when the Wildcats had closed the gap to 3-2.
Neither game resulted in a victory, but at this point DeSmith has proved he’s worthy of a shot to become the team’s top goaltender.
“He’s proven he’s going to be a good goaltender and he can play at this level,” Umile said of DeSmith. “[Who will be the starting goaltenders] are decisions that have to be made. It hasn’t been made yet, but he’s done a good job when he’s gotten in.”
If there is anywhere Umile hopes to lean in the second half it is on veteran leadership. Eleven straight NCAA tournament appearances don’t come from nowhere, and he believes that his veterans are the players that will have to right the ship.
“We’ve got great leadership,” said Umile. “It’s as good a group as we’ve ever coached. They’ve come out and played hard every night and it just hasn’t happened for us.”
Time to flood the ballpark
This hasn’t been a banner year thus far for Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine or New Hampshire, and that may make this Saturday’s Sun Life Frozen Fenway the highlight of the season each of those four schools.
Just days out, Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna said that his staff is ready to go in hosting an event almost as important — and taxing — as the league’s annual postseason tournament.
The biggest uncontrollable element, of course, for an outdoor game is the weather. The forecasts say that temperatures this Saturday night could reach the mid-40s, not the most ideal for an outdoor hockey game (certainly not going to create snowflakes) but, according to Bertagna, who has become a part-time weatherman this week, not disastrous.
“The weather looks like it’s going to cooperate,” said Bertagna. “That’s always the thing that people talk about. It’s going to be pretty cold [the nights leading up, which will harden the ice]. So that’s good.”
What are the ideal weather conditions for an event like this? If you listen to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, he likes to see snowflakes falling during the game. But most will remember the inaugural Winter Classic in Buffalo where the ice was so snow-covered it was difficult to handle the puck late.
At the same time, warmth — particularly if ever combined with this event’s nemesis, rain — may be welcomed by those in attendance. But what about the players?
“There’s a fine line between you want it cold enough that the integrity of the ice isn’t compromised and you want it comfortable enough for people sitting there watching the game,” said Bertagna, following with the fact that warm weather itself shouldn’t create too much of a headache. “There are pipes underneath there. It’s not like you need freezing temperatures there to hold the ice. I was there [last] Saturday, it was mid-40s and it was just fine.”
Fenway Park is holding a number of ancillary games, mostly high school events, this week to build up the ice. From there, Saturday’s Hockey East doubleheader will be followed with a women’s game midweek, and an ECAC Hockey contest between Union and Harvard next Friday before things conclude with Boston College and Northeastern facing off next Saturday afternoon, Jan. 14.
Asked if there was oversaturation of outdoor games, Bertagna was cautious. While he understands the marquee doubleheader is the premier element of this year’s Frozen Fenway, he also yields to the fact that the host, Fenway Park, needs to make money to cover its costs.
“We talked about whether there is too much of this, but there’s going to be close to 65,000 people watching just [Hockey East’s] two days, the 7th and the 14th,” said Bertagna. “It really is a thrill for the people who get to be part of it.”
Bertagna said as part of the negotiations for this year’s event, this week’s doubleheader had to sell out before any other games were announced. But selling out in less than a week, it became a no-brainer to extend the event and, in turn, help Fenway cover its costs.
“I wanted to protect the first game that it would sell out before we announced any other game,” said Bertagna. “But [Fenway Sports Management] is out $1 million from the start. They need to make some money on this and they need to have the rights to some more events.”
• Tip of the hat to the three tournament winners from Hockey East: Massachusetts-Lowell, Northeastern and Maine. Not sure if one is more impressive than another but both Lowell and Northeastern had to win on the opponent’s ice (Lowell at Connecticut, Northeastern at Minnesota). Both of those teams may currently rank as the league’s hottest. Northeastern is 7-0-1 in its last eight. Lowell has just one loss (7-1-0) in its last eight.
• Boston University will be looking for offense after the losses of both captain and leading scorer Corey Trivino and sophomore standout Charlie Coyle. Thought the Terriers lost 5-2 to Notre Dame on New Year’s Eve, it seemed that Sahir Gill was auditioning to become the team’s most potent scorer. Gill played like a man possessed, certainly one of the best offensive players on the ice for the Terriers.
• If you’re planning on attending the back half of Hockey East’s participation in Frozen Fenway — that is next Saturday’s (Jan. 14) game between Northeastern and Boston College — make sure you note a time change. The game is now going to be played at 4 p.m., as the event’s organizers didn’t want the game to conflict with the New England Patriots’ first playoff game, set to kick off in Foxboro that same night at 8 p.m.