New Hampshire begins its quest for the program's first NCAA Championship Friday night in its own backyard in Manchester at the Verizon Wireless Arena. UNH coach Dick Umile is very pleased his team is playing at a familiar arena. "We play one game there a season, and we love playing over there. It's an American Hockey League arena; the people there go out of their way to make us comfortable," he said.
The Wildcats hope some home cooking in the East Regional will help them find redemption for a second half swoon. Umile recognizes the benefit of a fresh start. "We had an excellent first half, but just a .500 second half. It's a whole new season," he said Tuesday.
The Wildcats will have their hands full in the regional. UNH, the second seed in Manchester, will face Denver in the first round. If UNH advances, the Wildcats will face one of the two hottest teams in the country, Wisconsin or UMass-Lowell. Those two teams face off in the other regional semifinal and come into the tournament as the two hottest teams in the country.
As tough as the second half was for the Wildcats, there are plenty of reasons for UNH fans to be optimistic. Dick Umile's team has five very skilled forwards who can attack an opponent's net, a defensive corps that can step into the offense with the best of teams, and a goaltender who can steal games when he's playing his best.
Junior Kevin Goumas leads a very dangerous offense that played especially well on home ice at the Whittemore Center. The Long Beach, NY native had 10 goals and 32 assists. Sophomore Grayson Downing (15 goals), senior Austin Block (15 goals) and senior John Henrion (14 goals) were the top goal scorers. Block whose 15 goals more than doubled his career total heading into the season had six tallies on the power play alone. "Austin Block and John Henrion have both had strong senior years scoring goals. They both had their best years since coming here," said Umile.
Defensively, the Wildcats have some very capable two-way players. Sophomore Trevor van Riemsdyk and junior Eric Knodel are two of the best offensive defensemen in Hockey East. van Riemsdyk, the younger brother of Toronto Maple Leafs star James van Riemsdyk, is second on the team in scoring with seven goals and 24 assists. Knodel, a Maple Leafs draft pick, has 10 goals and 10 assists on the year.
"Those guys have been scoring and helping us this season. Eric is having a terrific season. He can get into the rush with Trevor, and having Trevor out there is like having another forward on the ice. He is a clever player and likes to get into the offense. There is no doubt they have added offense to our team," said Umile.
Seniors Connor Hardowa and Brett Kostolansky are two defenders who have played a significant role. "Hardowa is a big strong defenseman. He doesn't talk a lot, but he leads by example. Kostolansky is a quiet defensive defenseman who brings it every single night," said Umile about his two seniors on the blue line.
Sophomore goaltender Casey DeSmith was as hot as any goaltender in the nation the first two months of the season. His numbers on the season are still respectable, but a steep decline from October and November. He will need to play well if UNH is to advance to the Frozen Four. Umile wasn't particularly critical about DeSmith's play in the second half. Rather he pointed out that his goaltender was more able to bail the team out the first few months. "The goaltending, when we did make mistakes, made the big saves in the first half, said Umile.
Umile knows the Wildcats face a very talented Denver team with some outstanding forwards. "They've got some skilled forwards in [Nick] Shore, [Chris] Knowlton and [Shawn] Ostrow, so they've got some guys who can make big-time plays."
"George [Gwozdecky] plays a more defensive style with good transition opportunities off good defense," said Umile. One player the UNH bench boss didn't mention was Edmonton draft pick Joey LaLeggia. The sophomore defenseman originally committed to UNH before shifting to the Pioneers. He has 11 goals and 18 assists on the season.
The Pioneers have three capable goaltenders, but sophomore Juho Olkinuora will most likely get the start over junior and Florida Panthers prospect Sam Brittain. Olkinuora has a 2.28 GAA and .929 save percentage with a 13-5-5 record on the year.
UNH and DU played each other at Magness Arena in Denver over Thanksgiving weekend. The Pioneers jumped out to a 3-0 lead before UNH rallied for a 6-4 victory.
This game could very well come down to which team's goaltender plays more effectively. If the game remains close or UNH jumps out to an early start, the home crowd in Manchester will be behind the Wildcats.
Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.