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DURHAM -- The 2012-13 mission for the University of New Hampshire men's hockey team is quite straight forward and simple.
“We're committed to not ending up back in that same place,” said Greg Burke, a senior forward and assistant captain from Lee.
That same place was on the outside looking in last March when the NCAA tournament began.
For the first time in a decade, the Wildcats missed the national playoffs.
“It was weird not being in the tournament,” Burke said. “It was upsetting ... The goal for our team is to come out right off the bat and show everyone — whether it be the league or the fans or the entire country — the type of hockey team we want to be and that we're going to be for the entire season, and not have to dig ourselves out of a hole.”
Last season started poorly for the Wildcats — they were shut out 5-0 at Boston University and 4-0 at Northeastern in their first two games, and were 0-4-1 in their first five — and was rough and streaky through New Year's.
Things settled down from there, in part because freshman Casey DeSmith of Rochester took over the starting goaltender job, and UNH played its best hockey at the end of the season.
The Wildcats went 9-8-1 after New Year's, with six of the losses in overtime and two others by a goal.
UNH finished 15-19-3 overall and 11-14-2 in Hockey East. For the first time since 1995-96 and only the second time ever under coach Dick Umile, the Wildcats were under .500 for a season.
They didn't like it.
“We don't find that acceptable,” said senior forward John Henrion. “And we don't want people to think we're going to accept losing. That's just more motivation for us.”
Now it's a matter of doing something about it.
“Everyone that's back is very, very hungry,” said senior defenseman and assistant captain Brett Kostolansky. “We definitely don't want to go through what we went through last year. It was frustrating and draining.”
The last time the Wildcats missed the NCAA tournament, they rebounded quite nicely the next season.
UNH came up short of the national playoffs in the 2000-01 season but came back the next year to not only qualify for the national tournament but advance to the Frozen Four. That season started the string of 10 straight NCAA appearances that ended last March.
The Wildcats look to start another such streak and be playing in the NCAA Northeast Regional when it returns to Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester next March.
“That's extra incentive; we want to be there,” said Burke.
“This team knows what we're capable of,” said Umile, whose next win will make him the sixth active Division I coach with 500 victories. “We've got a lot of guys returning from last year's team. We don't want to be close and losing games. We want to start winning games again.”
The Wildcats hope to build off a strong last month that included a final weekend when they beat Boston University in double overtime in the first game of the Hockey East quarterfinals, lost to the Terriers 4-2 and then fell 5-4 in another two-overtime game.
“They were terrific at the end, and we had everything we could do to get by them,” said BU coach Jack Parker at Hockey East's Media Day. “We're not the same team they played in the playoffs, and they're almost the same team.”
Parker said he picked UNH second behind Boston College in the preseason coaches' poll. UNH was the consensus fourth pick, behind UMass-Lowell and BU.
“I think their early problems were in goal, and they weren't quite as competitive as they should be because of that,” Parker said. “Once they shored that up, the rest of the guys pulled up their bootstraps and they went real hard at the end of the year”
DeSmith, who had a 2.33 goals-against average and .926 save percentage, is back, joined by Jeff Wyer, a junior who likely would have been given the first shot at the job last year but had his season ended early by a knee injury.
Umile expects the defense, young last year, to play better from the start of the season, led by senior captain Connor Hardowa and Kostolansky.Trevor van Riemsdyk, a sophomore defenseman, scored two goals in a 5-2 exhibition win over St. Francis Xavier on Saturday.
Goal-scoring was inconsistent last year, too, and the Wildcats scored less than three goals a game — they were at 2.92 — for the first time in more than a decade.
Umile hopes Henrion, who had five goals last year, and Burke, who had six, can break out with big senior seasons. He's penciled in a possible top line of sophomore Grayson Downing centering for juniors Nick Sorkin and Dalton Speelman, and expects major contributions from players such as junior Kevin Goumas and senior Austin Block.
Everyone, Burke said, is ready to go. “A lot of guys, I think, are feeling they have something to prove,” he said.
They get their first chance this weekend with season-opening games against St. Cloud State at the Whittemore Center on Friday night at 7:30 and Saturday night at 7.