Friday, October 10, 2008

Optimism is the word around UNH hockey

This much we know for certain about the University of New Hampshire hockey season, which commences Saturday night with a home game against Wisconsin: If the Wildcats manage to qualify for the NCAA tournament for an eighth straight season, they will play a Northeast Regional game at Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester on Saturday, March 28.

Now, about those 168 days between the start of the season and the start of the playoffs.

Gone to graduation are UNH's top two scorers, two of its top defensemen and Kevin Regan, who owns just about every career goaltending record at the school.

Coach Dick Umile, entering his 19th season, and his guys are confident they can plug those holes.

"I like our team," Umile said. "I think we've got great senior leadership again from the senior class. We've got three senior defensemen. We've got senior forwards in Greg Collins and Jerry Pollastrone and Thomas Fortney and hopefully Alan Thompson, who's definitely going to play if he stays healthy."

And they've got Brian Foster, a junior from Pembroke who's waited through two seasons for his chance to be the No. 1 guy in goal.

"I think he's going to be a real good one," Umile said. "He's excited. No disrespect to Kevin Regan, but I think Brian's real happy Kevin left."

Last year, UNH was picked in the preseason Hockey Easy coaches' poll to finish in a first-place tie with Boston College. Instead, the Wildcats ran away with the regular-season title.

BC stumbled at the end of the regular season and barely hung on to fourth place and home ice for the league playoffs. And then the Eagles got hot and rolled to the Hockey East title and straight on through to the national championship.

This season, Boston College is picked first in the league, BU second and UNH third.

So do the Wildcats have what it takes to win a third straight regular-season championship, a first Hockey East tournament title since 2003, grab another berth in the NCAAs and make a run at that elusive national title?

The offense

Yeah, they lost forwards Matt Fornataro and his 118 career points and Mike Radja and his 117.

But they have much back, too, led by James van Riemsdyk, the No. 2 draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers and one of three returning players in Hockey East who averaged more than a point a game last season.

He had 11 goals and 23 assists in 31 games, and the folks around him think he's ready to deliver more.

"He has something to prove," Pollastrone said. "You can just tell it in his eyes: He wants to prove he's a big-time player. He's such a great player, he expects more from himself. You can see it in practice. He's gotten stronger, he's gotten faster. You can just tell."

Van Riemsdyk is the leader of what could be a breakout sophomore group.

"You look at last year's freshman class. and I think that's where we're going to pick up the goal production," Umile said.

Phil DeSimone, Danny Dries, Paul Thompson and Mike Sislo are others in that mix.

"Phil DeSimone has a lot more confidence this year," said senior co-captain Greg Collins. "I think he's going to be real good. He's lost some weight. He scored a lot of goals in captains' practices."

A third-round pick of the Washington Capitals in 2007, DeSimone had three goals and 10 assists last season. He had 26 goals and 27 assists for 73 points in 60 games in his last year of junior hockey in the United States Hockey League.

The defense

Senior Joe Charlebois, named the Old Time Hockey best defensive defenseman in Hockey East last season, leads the blueliners. He was a league-best plus-25 in plus/minus statistics last season, and fellow senior Jamie Fritsch was at plus-17. Kevin Kapstad is the other senior.

Last year, they helped the Wildcats to a 2.00 goals-against average in Hockey East games, which was best in the league.

Freshman Blake Kessel, the brother of Boston Bruin forward Phil, was lined up as one of the top six defensemen in last Saturday's exhibition game win.

What's more, Greg Collins, a defensive-minded forward, and Charlebois are the captains.

"I think Greg and I bring a defensive game, a defensive mentality to practice and games," Charlebois said. "We're excited about this year."

The goalie

Foster, who is backed up by freshman Matt DiGirolamo, pitched shutouts in his first two career starts, against UMass-Lowell and St. Lawrence, as a freshman. He appeared in seven games as a freshman and six last year, and now it's his time.

"I'm really looking forward to it," Foster said. "It's all about consistency now. Every week, every game."

A change in goal, turnover up front and at the blueline -- it doesn't change the approach in the Wildcat locker room.

"We want to win three titles," Foster said. "The regular season, the Hockey East tournament and the national championship. That's definitely the goal."

The mission

This group of seniors has been part of a 71-34-12 record with a couple of league championships over the last three years and has qualified for the national tournament each year.

But the Wildcats have not won an NCAA playoff game in that stretch.

"Hopefully we can make it there, because I think we do have something to prove in the NCAA tournament," Charlebois said. "Not to ourselves, but to our fans and the rest of the college hockey world: that we can do something in the postseason."

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