It’s a measure of Hockey East’s parity that only five points separated New Hampshire from fourth place and home ice last season, but that small difference put the Wildcats all the way back to eighth.
For a program that put together a string of first-place finishes not that long ago, eighth place amounted to a rude slap in the face. With the sudden and unexpected loss of their top goaltender just as the season was about to start, the Wildcats struggled mightily out of the gate.
Those struggles continued until Daniel Tirone arrived for the second semester and immediately solidified the goaltending position (14-6, 2.14 GAA, .924 save percentage).
Of course, it was UNH’s second straight poor start to a season, and as the saying goes, once is a fluke, twice is a trend. That trend will have to change for the Wildcats to return to their past glory.
“It’s all about getting off to a better start than we have the last two years,” coach Dick Umile said. “That put us in a hole.
“We just missed out on getting back to the NCAA tournament the last two years by either a game or two, and it was because of our start.”
Umile said he has the players to avoid an unenviable three-peat.
“Last year’s junior class got us turned around last season,” Umile said. “With 11 freshmen, they helped those guys feel comfortable and helped them contribute. They are now the seniors on our team, and they’re great leaders.
“It’s all about the culture, and I feel real confident that it will help us get back to the NCAA tournament.
“The hard part is the league is a lot better than it used to be. It used to be just a four-team league, but now we have some young coaches that are very talented and their talented programs have made our league even stronger.”
19-19-2, 10-11-1 (eighth) in Hockey East. Lost to Boston University in the Hockey East semifinals.
Names to know
Tyler Kelleher (42 points) and Andrew Poturalski (29) lead the returning scorers. Tirone impressed in goal over the second half.
1. Will the Wildcats get out of the gate with a roar rather than a whimper?
2. Will Tirone expand on last year’s exceptional start and become one of the league’s top netminders?
3. Was last year’s advance to the Garden (including a quarterfinal defeat of eventual national champion Providence) a harbinger of even better things to come this year?
Jim Connelly (sixth place): The Wildcats were easily the hottest team down the stretch last season. There will be some holes to fill but there’s no reason to believe this team won’t compete for a first-round bye.
David H. Hendrickson (fifth place): UNH became a much better team after Tirone stabilized the goaltending position. The momentum of eight straight late-season wins continues into this year.