These have been hard days in Durham, N.H.
UNH is mired in its worst season in 24 years, and enters this weekend’s games sitting in seventh place, just one point ahead of eighth-place UMass and Northeastern – one point away from being right on the edge of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1988.
There are a lot of reasons for this, but to make it awfully simple, the Wildcats have scored just 37 goals in league play and surrendered 44. The goal total by UNH’s offense is the fourth-worst number in the league, and the goals allowed are the fourth-highest.
They’ve lost some whoppers – 5-0 to BU on Oct. 8, 4-0 to Northeastern on Oct. 14 – and they’ve lost the close ones, like the 3-2 defeat to UMass-Lowell on Dec. 2 and the 5-4 overtime heartbreaker against Maine last weekend at Fenway Park. But all the losses count the same, and UNH has collected 11 of them (eight in Hockey East play), matching their entire total from last season and surpassing their 2010-11 league total.
To some extent, this was expected. UNH suffered arguably the toughest losses of any team in the offseason, watching all three members of last year’s first line pick up their diplomas. By this time last year, Paul Thompson (Derry, N.H.), Mike Sislo and Phil DeSimone had combined for 28 goals and 52 assists, with Thompson leading the league with 15-16-31 totals.
Right now, UNH has just two players in the top 10 in scoring: Leominster, Mass., native Stevie Moses (12-10-22) and Nick Sorkin (6-15-21).
Offense, obviously, is only half of the problem. Defensively, the Wildcats aren’t the same team they were last year, either. They’ve averaged nearly one more goal allowed per game than last season.
Unfortunately, that falls squarely on the shoulders of Matt Di Girolamo, who looked like a potential league leader after owning the league’s best save percentage (.923) and second-best goals against average (2.30) last year as a junior. In his swan song this year, however, his goals-against (3.41) and save percentage (.883) are both near the bottom of the league. And that has come behind a defense that’s allowing nearly three shots fewer per game than it did last season.
Yet even in this bleak midwinter for the Wildcats, there is hope. They’re not dead yet, and with a win over Providence Wednesday night, they snapped a five-game losing streak. There are three teams below them in the standings – UMass, Northeastern and Vermont – and the Minutemen and Catamounts have both struggled to put wins together all year, so even as the Huskies seem to have come alive under first-year coach Jim Madigan (Milton, Mass.), the math still seems to favor UNH making the playoffs.
Looking a bit more closely at Wednesday night’s win, we find another source of hope for UNH: freshman goaltender Casey DeSmith. The Rochester, N.H., native didn’t see action in any of the team’s first 13 games, only came into the Nov. 26 win over Alabama-Huntsville to play custodian in a 9-1 slaughter and then sat out the next two games.
DeSmith has played in each of the Wildcats’ last four games, though, starting in three of them, including Saturday’s spotlight game against Maine at Fenway. DeSmith’s record is an unspectacular 1-2-0, but his 2.29 goals-against average and .924 save percentage (in an admittedly small sample size of five appearances) are nothing to sneeze at, and he pitched his first career shutout against the Friars Wednesday, stopping all 26 Providence shots on the road.
He didn’t get the win at Fenway, but in a rollicking 5-4 game, he held his own with Maine revelation Dan Sullivan standing 180 feet away.
“He did a good job,” coach Dick Umile (Melrose, Mass.) said after Saturday’s loss. “He gave us a chance to win and that’s all you ask for from your goaltender – to hang in there. He stayed in there when the score was 4-2, made a couple of key saves and gave us an opportunity to get back in the game – he did that and he gave us an opportunity to win. And we had our chances to win the game.”
At this point, while it might be tough to swallow for a program accustomed to being among the leaders in Hockey East, a chance to win is about as much as the Wildcats can ask.
Game of the Week
Northeastern vs. Boston College, Saturday
The 2012 edition of Frozen Fenway’s de facto closing ceremony is this battle of city rivals, and as a bonus it’s a pretty meaningful matchup for the first-round Beanpot foes.
Hockey East power rankings
1. Boston College (13-7-1, 9-4-1 Hockey East) – With UMass-Lowell idle, the No. 4 Eagles hang on to the top spot this week, but after giving up a two-goal lead and a tying goal with just 1:10 to go in a tie with Merrimack – and one win in the last four games – BC is looking more troubled every week.
2. UMass-Lowell (12-5-0, 7-4-0) – The No. 10 River Hawks won a feisty exhibition against the Russian Red Stars last week before starting an eight-day break, so it’ll be interesting to see how they get back at it at lowly Vermont in their only game of the weekend.
3. Northeastern (8-7-3, 4-7-2) – NU was the latest team to get jumped by the frisky U.S. Under-18 team, and while it doesn’t affect their standing in the league, the Huskies have a crucial stretch coming up, with four games against BU, BC and UMass-Lowell. That includes a tough late game against the Terriers Friday night, followed by an early call for Saturday’s 4 p.m. tilt at Fenway.
4. Boston University (11-6-1, 9-4-1) – Maybe it was just a reaction to the notable losses BU suffered a few weeks ago, but the No. 6 Terriers’ 4-2 win over Merrimack seems like a good sign for a team that could use one. Oddly enough, they’ve got a little mini-Beanpot preview ahead, with games against Northeastern and Harvard on the slate for the weekend.
5. Merrimack (11-4-4, 7-3-2) – They’re still earning the attention of national voters with a No. 7 ranking, but the Warriors need to put together a win streak soon or the formerly top-ranked team could find itself in a dogfight for home ice in the quarterfinals.
6. Maine (10-7-2, 7-6-1) – The Black Bears’ only game last weekend was one to remember, with Lynnfield, Mass., native Brian Flynn scoring in overtime to give Maine a win in the nightcap at Frozen Fenway on Saturday – the fourth straight win for the northerners.
7. Providence (8-9-2, 6-5-1) – Once the hottest team in the league, Providence can’t buy a win lately, going 0-3-1 since beating Merrimack on Dec. 3. A Sunday matinee against Vermont will be a good test of how far the Friars have actually fallen during the rough patch.
8. UMass (7-8-5, 3-6-4) – There’s a very long road ahead for the eighth-place Minutemen, but they’re 3-1-1 over their last five, including Saturday’s dramatic overtime win at Fenway against Vermont, setting up a race with Northeastern and UNH for the last playoff spot.
9. New Hampshire (7-11-2, 5-8-1) – We’d like to see some more positive results from the Wildcats before we give them credence in these rankings, but snapping that five-game slide was a refreshing twist for the struggling superpower.
10. Vermont (4-15-1, 1-11-1) – Unfortunately, it looks like the highlight of the year for UVM will be getting to play a game at Fenway Park, but it’s worth noting that the Catamounts gave UMass all it could handle before falling short in overtime Saturday.
Andrew Merritt can be reached at MerrittNEHJ@gmail.com.