By Andy Merritt
MANCHESTER, N.H. – Last year, anything Casey DeSmith (Rochester, N.H.) did was noteworthy because it was more than what was expected of him.
This year, everything he does is noteworthy precisely because of what’s expected of him.
As a freshman in 2011-12, DeSmith was a midseason savior for UNH, playing all but two of the final 24 games, and starting the final 21 in relief of senior Matt DiGirolamo, who couldn’t replicate his earlier successes. So the freshman took over, and posted big numbers – a 2.33 goals against average and .926 save percentage, plus one shutout – en route to a Hockey East All-Rookie team selection.
But that was then. Now, Casey DeSmith is the No. 1 goalie at UNH, and has started all but one of the Wildcats’ games. The early returns on his sophomore season were good – he had a 1.19 GAA and .961 save percentage through 10 games, with four shutouts and an 8-1-2 record.
Then came the Colorado trip. DeSmith allowed eight goals on a combined 30 shots at Colorado College and Denver Nov. 23 and 24, respectively, including four goals on just five attempts against Denver, which got him yanked after just 9:05 of play.
DeSmith hasn’t been as solid as he was before that fateful trip, though his 5-3-0 record over the eight games after Denver isn’t a reason for panic.
But after he allowed four goals on 11 shots against Providence on Jan. 19, coach Dick Umile decided it was time for DeSmith to take a break. He pulled the young netminder halfway through the game against the Friars, and sat him for UNH’s visit to Merrimack Friday, Nov. 25, giving junior Jeff Wyer (Reading, Mass.) the second start of his college career.
But it was just a rest, not a demotion.
“He’s shown before after a couple of tough games how he bounces back,” Umile said after DeSmith backstopped UNH to a 6-2 win over Merrimack on Saturday at Verizon Wireless Arena. “We had confidence that he was going to bounce back. We made the decision on Thursday that Jeff would play the first game, and Casey was going to come back and get back in there Saturday night. He did his part.”
DeSmith allowed just two goals on 35 shots against the Warriors, picking up his 14th win of the season.
There was no reason to think DeSmith was just a flash in the pan, but all the same, his standout performance on Saturday gave his teammates some confidence as the playoffs – and a potential NCAA bid – loom.
“I wasn’t here last year, but from what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen now, he’s a great goaltender,” said freshman Dan Correale, who scored the game-winner Saturday. “You can’t expect him to be on his game every game, but he’s brought it most of the season, and after tonight, we’re comfortable with him in the net.”
Sophomore defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk was there last year, and he saw the effect DeSmith has had on the Wildcats – a program long known for its quality goaltending.
“Last year he came in halfway and kept us in a lot of games,” van Riemsdyk said. “This year, early on, he was making big saves and big moments, and that’s what you need from the No. 1. There’s going to be peaks and valleys, and it’s kind of how you deal with that adversity.
“Casey’s a really hard-working kid, he’s a great kid, and we were all extremely confident that he’d bounce back and have a great performance like this. Nobody was too worried about it.”
Now that the mid-season rough patch seems to be over for DeSmith, opposing shooters are the ones who might need to worry.
Game of the Week
UMass-Lowell at Merrimack, Friday, 7 p.m.
The Merrimack Valley rivalry is always a fun one, but this time around it’s also hugely important, as the River Hawks and Warriors are tied for fifth place (with fourth-place Providence ahead by just a point) as the playoff chase hits full speed.
New Hampshire (15-6-2, 10-5-1 HEA) – The Wildcats aren’t exactly burning up the charts lately, but they played a solid game in Manchester on Saturday and certainly seem to be trending in a better direction than BC.
UMass-Lowell (14-7-2, 8-6-2 HEA) – The River Hawks scored twice with goalie Doug Carr (Hanover, Mass.) pulled to tie Saturday’s game, then beat Northeastern in overtime for one of the most dramatic wins of the season.
Boston College (14-7-2, 11-6-1 HEA) – It is officially a slump in Chestnut Hill, where the Eagles are 1-4-0 over their last five, with last weekend’s losses to Maine putting some drama into the season.
Providence (10-10-4, 8-6-3 HEA) – Jon Gillies (South Portland, Maine) has hit the skids for the first time in his otherwise stellar freshman season, allowing a combined 11 goals on 87 shots over the last three games, including last weekend’s tie and loss to BU.
Boston University (13-9-1, 10-6-1 HEA) – The up-and-down Terriers picked up their first tie of the year Saturday against Providence, and have been paced by freshman Danny O’Regan (Needham, Mass.), who has more points (11) than any other player in the country over the last three weeks.
Merrimack (10-10-5, 8-6-2 HEA) – The Warriors went 4-2-1 in January, their best single month of the season, but the road only gets tougher from here – all but four of their remaining 11 games are against currently ranked opponents.
UMass (8-11-2, 5-8-1 HEA) – The Minutemen are fighting for a playoff spot, but there’s one area where they are among the nation’s best: faceoffs. UMass is No. 2 in the country with a 54.5 percent faceoff win rate, led by Branden Gracel’s 61.7 percent, good for eighth in the nation.
Vermont (7-13-4, 4-9-4 HEA) – Freshman Brody Hoffman had one of his best weekends of the year at a time when the Catamounts really needed it, holding UMass to five goals on a combined 70 shots to earn a two-game split.
Northeastern (7-12-3, 4-10-3 HEA) – Freshman Kevin Roy has played just 22 college hockey games, and he’s already scored two goals in three of them, including Friday’s tie with UMass-Lowell.
Maine (7-14-4, 3-9-4 HEA) – It’ll be hard for the Black Bears to sneak into the playoffs this year, but last weekend’s shocking sweep of Boston College means this: It’s not impossible.