Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Know Your Enemy: New Hampshire

Last week, we touched on RPI's most frequent out-of-conference rival, but this week's team is no slouch in that category, either. Like many teams in Hockey East, UNH previously played in the ECAC, and since the split in 1984, they've played the Engineers on 13 different occasions, 14 if one includes the NCAA tournament game the teams played in 1994.

New Hampshire
Nickname: Wildcats
Location: Durham, NH
Founded: 1866
Conference: Hockey East
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2011
Last Frozen Four: 2003
Coach: Dick Umile (23rd season)
2011-12 Record: 15-19-3 (11-14-2 Hockey East, 6th place)
Series: UNH leads, 24-20-0
First Game: February 7, 1964 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 10, 2009 (Troy, NY)
Last UNH win: October 17, 2008 (Durham, NH)

2012-13 game: January 6, 2013 (Durham, NH)

Key players: F Austin Block, sr.; F Greg Burke, sr.; D Brett Kostolansky, sr.; D Connor Hardowa, sr.; F Kevin Goumas, jr.; D Eric Knodel, jr.; F Nick Sorkin, jr.; G Casey DeSmith, so.; F Grayson Downing, so.; D Trevor van Riemsdyk, so.; F Collin MacDonald, fr.; D Brett Pesce, fr.; F Kyle Smith, fr.

Earlier in this year's Know Your Enemy roll, we touched on the famed NCAA futility of St. Cloud State, whose futility tended to manifest itself at the beginning of each tournament they were in. New Hampshire has a similar bugaboo, but theirs extends to the very top of the tournament as the Wildcats are known as one of the best programs in the nation that has never won the national championship despite seven Frozen Fours and 21 NCAA appearances.

Hockey at New Hampshire dates back to 1925, when the school first sponsored a team to take part in a winter festival at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. UNH was able to field a team with at least two games a year through 1943, but rarely had outstanding seasons with the lone exception of 1927, when the Wildcats won all six of their games. Suspending operations for World War II, the team returned in 1947 and pretty much picked up where they left off, putting together mostly middling seasons into the late 1950s.

From 1958 through 1960, the Wildcats elevated their play significantly with three straight seasons that rank among the team's best early successes. Shortly after moving to a new outdoor rink in 1955, UNH put together three consecutive seasons with 11 or more wins, breaking the 10 win mark for the first time in school history and completing a record of 38-16-0 during the span. Two years later, the Wildcats would be among the 28 teams in the inaugural season of the ECAC.

After finishing near the middle of the back in the first three seasons of the new conference, the Wildcats left the ECAC due in large part to their lack of indoor facilities. On the same day the school announced a large project to build an indoor arena around their rink, the team's coach, A. Barr "Whoop" Snively died of a heart attack. The project was named after Snively, and Snively Rink would open in 1965. Among the fallout from Snively's death was the arrival of RPI head coach Rube Bjorkman as his replacement, a move which nearly killed hockey at RPI after Bjorkman took most of the team's top recruits with him to Durham.

Under Bjorkman, the Wildcats returned to the ECAC after a two year absence in 1967, becoming the conference's 16th member. With Bjorkman's pilfered recruits leading the way during his two years in the league, UNH established a tradition of excellence within the conference, finishing with a winning percentage under .600 only three times in 18 seasons in the ECAC (and only one of the three was a losing season). Much of this success came under coach Charlie Holt, who took over after Bjorkman left for North Dakota in 1968 following UNH's first ever 20-win season.

Holt guided the Wildcats to their first title in 1974, claiming the ECAC's regular season championship, but they were upset in the first round by RPI, ending hopes of an ECAC championship and the team's first NCAA appearance. Repeatedly, the Wildcats suffered playoff heartbreak despite outstanding regular seasons, falling to Cornell in 1975 and Harvard in 1976. In 1977, UNH finally got over the hump and appeared in their first Frozen Four (in a five team tournament), falling in overtime to Wisconsin.

1979 brought UNH its first and only ECAC title as the Wildcats knocked off Yale and Cornell before defeating Dartmouth 3-2 to claim the championship. That sent UNH back to the Frozen Four, but again they fell in the semifinal. The Wildcats would earn their first ever NCAA victories in 1982 with a pair of wins over Michigan State, but once more the team could not get any farther than the semifinal round of the Frozen Four.

Following another missed NCAA opportunity in 1983, UNH joined with Providence, Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern to announce a breakaway league from the ECAC, becoming charter members of the new Hockey East. But when the new league got underway in 1984, the Wildcats found themselves struggling to keep pace in the new "super league." After a losing season in the inaugural year - the school's first 20-loss season ever - the Wildcats had a school-worst record of 5-29-3 in 1986, which coincided with Holt's retirement after 18 seasons.

Holt's replacement, Bob Kullen, suffered health problems through much of his tenure and could not right the ship in Durham, and the team suffered three additional 20-loss seasons - five in a row, marking the only five in school history. Following a heart transplant in 1990, Kullen stepped down and was replaced by assistant coach and former Wildcat player Dick Umile, who ushered in a sustained period of success for the next 20 years. In Umile's first official year as head coach in 1991, the team notched a 20-win season for the first time since 1984, and the following year returned to the NCAA tournament, which would become a regular habit.

In the 22 years since Umile's hiring, the Wildcats have had only two losing seasons, and have firmly established themselves among Hockey East's "Big Four." Between 1992 and 2011, UNH missed the NCAA tournament on only three occasions, including 10 straight apperances from 2002 through 2011. The team has had its brushes with greatness during that stretch, reaching the Frozen Four for the first time in 16 seasons with an appearance in 1998, and the following year UNH played for the national championship for the first time, losing a heartbreaker in overtime to their conference rivals, Maine.

Despite Umile's successes, the playoff woes that the Wildcats had in the ECAC had largely carried over into Hockey East, as the Wildcats failed time and time again to capture the Hockey East title. Regular season crowns in 1997 and 1999 both ended in heartache in the Hockey East championship game, but UNH finally broke through in 2002 and 2003, winning both the regular season and tournament titles in both years. Both seasons also saw returns to the Frozen Four, with the Wildcats returning to the national championship game in 2003 but again falling, this time to the reigning champions from Minnesota.

Over the following eight seasons, UNH returned to the NCAA tournament each year (along with regular season Hockey East titles in 2007, 2008, and 2010), but has yet to return to the Frozen Four. That streak was broken this past season, one of the toughest in Umile's long tenure in Durham, when the team failed to finish in the top four in Hockey East for the first time since 1996, fell in the first round to Boston University in three games (two of which went to two overtimes), and narrowly avoid the first 20-loss season since 1989.

New Hampshire struggled to put points on the board at times last season, and early on in the year struggled to keep pucks out of the net as well. After DeSmith took over the top job in net late in the season, the defensive problems got a little bit better, but offensively the Wildcats are going to be looking for someone to step up following the loss of Stevie Moses, who pumped in 22 goals last year, by far the team's leader. The trio of Sorkin, Goumas, and Downing will be the likely candidates here, while Smith and MacDonald offer some young talent as well.

Defensively, look for a better performance from a team with a 2.97 GAA (42nd in the nation) last year. DeSmith did rather well for a freshman goaltender last year and UNH's d-corps matured as the season went on. Last year's core players on the blue line were sophomores and juniors, this year, they're juniors and seniors with a great puck-moving sophomore in van Riemsdyk and one of the best college-bound players in the northeast in Pesce.

The Wildcats are hurting after a very difficult season and will have just two NHL draftees on their roster (Knodel and Burke), an unusual shortage for such a high powered team, but bad seasons are excessively rare in Durham, and two in a row are unheard of. If UNH finds its offense, this is a team that could claw its way back to the reaches of Hockey East that it's used to. That makes for a dangerous back end to RPI's Hockey East weekend that kicks off 2013.

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