If anyone thought that this year’s New Hampshire team, the 28th and final for coach Dick Umile, might be a walkover on an opponent’s schedule, think again.
There’s still plenty of hockey to play, but week one for the Wildcats, which featured a 4-3 road win and 4-1 victory at home over then-No. 5 UMass Lowell, proved there is plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
A return to prominence would be an appropriate goodbye for Umile, who, in the offseason, announced his retirement effective at the end of the 2017-18 season. He led his team to the NCAA tournament in 18 of the previous 27 years, including 10 straight from 2002 to 2011. But the last four seasons have been a struggle and created a four-year NCAA drought, the longest of Umile’s coach career.
Not surprisingly, that resulted in the Wildcats being picked eighth of 11 in the Hockey East coaches poll. But returns from one weekend of play led voters to insert the Wildcats into the USCHO poll in the 20th spot.
“It was a great start for us,” said Umile. “Anytime you can win two hockey games in a college hockey schedule where there’s so much parity, playing one of the top program in the country the last several years, UMass Lowell, it’s a great weekend.”
The pair of victories featured a UNH team that, in many ways, didn’t resemble last year’s club. A year ago, too often you’d see the Wildcats sitting back, trying to play defense and hoping to force mistakes to create offense. Last weekend, this UNH team was aggressive and showed an increase in overall team speed.
That’s something that Umile says was a goal of his and his staff as they put together this club.
“No question [we are faster],” said Umile. “That all starts from our end out. I think we’ve improved defensively, our defensive corps. So the transition game is something I think we’ve improved in and that all starts from defensive play.”
Two considerable additions to the backend that both displayed positive signs against Lowell were defensemen Benton Maass and Max Gildon. They are young – both are 18 and Gildon won’t turn 19 before the end of the season. But both also showed that they can handle the pace adjustment of the college game.
“They are two young freshmen who handled it very, very well,” said Umile. “Stepping into Hockey East, playing against UMass Lowell, you better be ready to play.
“Add them to [the existing defensive players], that gave us a really good, strong defensive corps that helped us breakdown down Lowell’s offense in our zone and helped us transition to offense.”
Offensively, besides just looking fast, many players were able to execute with pace and perhaps none better than senior Shane Eiserman.
After battling an injury for much of his junior season, one where Umile says he hoped he’d be able to take a stride forward in his game, he showed that he is ready to move past being a role player and prepared to stand out in this UNH offense.
“He’s a senior now and he’s a big strong powerful forward,” Umile said of Eiserman. “He made a great play along with Ara Nazarian, to score [the winning goal on Friday]. Right after Lowell had tied it on the power play, Max Gildon got it to the net and Shane made a great play to put it in.
“The experience, his size and skill at net front, is the reason he was able to succeed.”
Umile announced his retirement prior to this season to take away any speculation of when he might retire. It also allowed him to announce his replacement, Mike Souza, an alum of the program and someone that Umile was able to hand pick. Working alongside one another this season, there certainly is a lot of hope that Umile can go out on a high note. And that’s something that began in weekend number one.
“We’ll take that, we’ll move on,” said a matter-of-fact Umile. “But it’s a long way to go.”
Providence’s buzzer beater
For years, particularly prior to the school’s hockey national championship in 2015, Providence was known to most as a basketball school. So at least their fans are quite familiar with the term buzzer beater.
Last Saturday night, the hockey team brought the term to life on ice.
Tied at 2 against Miami after the RedHawks had clawed back from a 2-0 deficit in the first, the game looked to be headed to overtime.
But Providence had second thoughts.
As the third period drew to a close, a Friars defenseman flipped a puck out of the defensive zone that landed well short of icing. That allowed Kasper Bjorkqvist and Jacob Bryson to attempt to win a puck battle on the right half board. Bjorkqvist came away with the puck and found Ryan Tait alone in the slow. Though his first shot was stopped, Bjorkqvist headed to the net a found a rebound with less than a second to play and slid it underneath the goaltender.
The goal was reviewed and deemed in the net with nine-tenths of a second remaining, giving the Friars the 3-2 win and an important road sweep of Miami to start the season.
Tkachuk’s physical presence felt by Terriers
His name has been in the scoring column and penalty column equally (once each). But for BU rookie Brady Tkachuk, his physical presence has been felt all over the ice.
The 6-foot-3, 197 pound freshman has been a menace at times on the ice for the Terriers through two games. And while he’s burying goals, you can hardly miss him when he’s out on the ice for the Terriers.
“Brady’s a presence out there, you notice him out there all the time,” said BU coach David Quinn. “The pace doesn’t bother him. He’s a menace around the net.”
Let’s not confuse things here, though. Tkachuk is hardly an uncaged animal. While you don’t want to face him on a hit along the board, you also don’t want to leave him alone in front of the net where Quinn feels he can hurt you equally.
“He’s got really good stick skills,” said Quinn. “He’s a skilled player who has a tenacity to him that going to bode well for him this year.”
Tkachuk’s size along with fellow freshmen Shane Bowers and Hank Crone (both 6-foot-2) gives a heavy feel to this Terriers team that can also beat you with speed and finesse.
York looks to build rivalry with Quinnipiac
Prior to last Friday, Boston College and Quinnipiac had never met in a scheduled regular-season meeting.
Two seasons ago, they faced one another in the national semifinal, a game in which Quinnipiac prevailed, 3-2.
And after their first regular season, non-tournament meeting, BC coach Jerry York is ready to make this a rivalry going forward.
“Quinnipiac is going to be more of a staple in our schedule for now on,” said York. “The only time we’ve played them [before Friday] is in a Christmas tournament or the Frozen Four.”
The fact that York wants Quinnipiac as a staple might surprise some. Hockey East teams lost two non-conferences game this year when Notre Dame left the league and the conference voted to use an imbalanced schedule to increase the number of conference games from 22 to 24, thus reducing non-conference games from 12 to 10.
Boston College commits two of those games each year to the Beanpot and another in years that they don’t face them in the Beanpot semifinal to play Harvard. Add in the typical holiday tournament that York likes, that begins to handcuff York’s non-conference schedule.
But with Quinnipiac becoming a prominent school on the national landscape, York wants to spend that non-conference currency on a strong opponent that is a two-and-a-half hour bus ride away.
“We go there next year to play and I envision that as one of our non-conference rivalry type games,” York said. “Which is pretty phenomenal when you think about ten years ago, BC-Quinnipiac in a rivalry-type atmosphere.
“They’ve come so quick and so fast to become a real player in the national scene. We’re excited about the rivalry and excited it’s continuing.”