DURHAM, N.H. – Meaningful games are the norm in these parts come February and March.
|UNH goalie Casey DeSmith has started every game so far in 2012. (Dave Arnold Photography)|
This year, however, is a rarity. Those meaningful games being played by the New Hampshire Wildcats aren’t chances to win a regular season title, the No. 1 seed or a home-ice advantage in the Hockey East quarterfinals.
They’re a chance to keep the season alive.
As things stand right now, when the playoffs start the weekend of March 10 and 11, the Whittemore Center will be dark for the first time in 16 years. The Wildcats enter the weekend’s games in seventh place, six points behind Maine for the fourth and final home-ice playoff seed, and just four points ahead of eighth-place UMass and Northeastern – both of whom have a game in hand on UNH.
The Wildcats dug themselves a hole early in the season, losing their first four games, and slogging through a 1-6-0 stretch as they headed into the new year. When they lost to Maine at Frozen Fenway on Jan. 7, they fell to 6-11-2, and the first year without a playoffs in Durham since 1988 looked like a real possibility.
Since that night at Fenway, though, UNH has gone 7-4-1, and while they haven’t exactly surged up the standings, the Wildcats seem to have righted the ship in time to make the playoffs a reasonable expectation again.
“I think throughout the year, you would see us do things well, but all the pieces weren’t fit together,” senior captain Mike Borisenok said before Saturday’s game against Vermont. “Now, I think you’re seeing all the pieces fit together, whether it’s our defensive play, our offensive play, our backchecking, our puck management. In the beginning of the year, some nights we’d have three of those elements, but then a fourth element would lack, and it would lose us the game.
“I think that toward the end of the stretch here, we’re really putting the pieces together.”
A large piece came together in an unexpected way. At the start of the year, senior Matt DiGirolamo was expected to be not only the UNH starter, but possibly one of the league’s elite goaltenders after posting Hockey East’s best save percentage (.923) and second-best goals against average (2.44) last season. But DiGirolamo was never able to replicate his strong junior year, and in January gave the starting job up to freshman Casey DeSmith, a hometown boy from Rochester, N.H., who had solid if not outstanding numbers last year for the USHL’s Indiana Ice.
Since he became the Wildcats’ No. 1, DeSmith has been one of the league’s best, with a 2.12 GAA and .926 save percentage in his 13 starts (6-6-1), playing every game in 2012 for the Wildcats.
“I think what is a big advantage for him, and one of his biggest assets, is he’s very calm,” Borisenok said. “It was one of the first things I noticed when he was in net, that no matter how the puck bounced, he was calm no matter what. As a leader and a senior on the team, seeing a young guy like that in the net, you really don’t have to say much to him, because he can really take care of his own ship.”
DiGirolamo has played Drew Bledsoe to his freshman teammate’s Tom Brady, the veteran netminder hasn’t spent this difficult season sulking about his lost job.
“It shows what kind of teammate he is, I hear him talking with Casey all the time about goalie specifics – nothing that I would really know about, but I think it shows his senior leadership to help someone out like that,” Borisenok said. “Obviously it’s a tough situation. As a teammate, he’s handling it well, but it’s just a tough situation all around.”
That would be an apt description for the Wildcats at large during portions of this season. And for a program that has won four of the last 10 Hockey East regular season titles, as well as back-to-back league championships in 2002 and 2003, the prospect of finishing in the bottom half of the standings is a tough pill to swallow.
Not only that, but if the Wildcats intend to make their 18th NCAA tournament – and their 11th straight – they’re going to have to do it through winning the Hockey East title as a 5-8 seed, with an at-large bid just about out of the question.
“Obviously the last three years, going into the playoffs we’ve had a pretty strong situation with the NCAA tournament, and this year that isn’t there,” Borisenok said. “It’s really making sure that we’re on our game and putting fire under our butts, because it’s do or die. That is our mentality, that it is do or die, so going into the playoffs we’re definitely going to be bearing down and giving it our most.”
Games of the Week
UMass-Lowell vs. Merrimack, Friday/Saturday, 7 p.m.
The rivalry picks back up just two weeks after a hotly-contested clash between the two Merrimack Valley teams, and both could use victories now more than ever with just four games left in the season.
Hockey East power rankings
Andrew Merritt can be reached at MerrittNEHJ@gmail.com.