DURHAM — It ended — painfully — at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester on the last Saturday night in March.
The University of New Hampshire hockey team’s bounce-back season put Dick Umile’s team, after a rare off year, back in the NCAA tournament and the Wildcats eliminated Denver in a first-round game in the Northeast Regional at the Verizon.
But UNH’s top two forwards, Kevin Goumas and Grayson Downing, left the game after taking nasty hits against Denver. Neither was able to play in the regional final the next night against UMass Lowell and the Wildcats didn’t have enough offense against a tough bunch of defenders and fell, 2-0.
UMass Lowell moved on to its first Frozen Four and New Hampshire closed out at 20-12-7 overall.
“It seems like yesterday,” said UNH senior defenseman and captain Eric Knodel. “It’s a loss that didn’t sit well over the summer. We got a taste of it last year. We got back to the NCAA tournament and won the first game and lost the second We have a taste of what it takes to get there and what it takes to win.”
Led by Goumas, a senior, and Downing, a junior, up front with Knodel and junior Trevor van Riemsdyk anchoring the defense and junior Casey DeSmith of Rochester back in net, an experienced group of Wildcats will look to build off that taste and take things a step or two further in 2013-14.
Ranked No. 13 in the country in the USCHO preseason poll, they begin their latest quest against undefeated Clarkson today at 5 p.m. in the first round of the Ice Breaker Tournament at Mariucci Arena at the University of Minnesota.
Mercyhurst and Minnesota meet in the other first-round game tonight.
The winners play on Saturday night in the title game and there is also a consolation game.
“We’re excited to get going,” said Umile, who begins his 24th season as UNH’s head coach tonight. “Minnesota’s a great hockey area and we haven’t played Clarkson in a while. We’re looking to put a good game together.”
Clarkson opened with a pair of wins, 2-1 and 2-0, at Niagara last weekend.
Senior Jeff Wyer will start in goal for UNH tonight and DeSmith will be in the net on Saturday.
Umile said during the pre-season that Wyer had been playing well and was going to push DeSmith, who started all but one game last year, for playing time.
“We’ll take it one game at a time,” Umile said. “Casey got on a roll last year and we went with him. He could well do that again. We’ll see how it goes.”
The Wildcats got off to a super start last year — they won their first four games and were 11-1-2 as of Dec. 1 — and will try to do so again.
“We’re definitely hungry,” Goumas said. “Me and the rest of the seniors have come up short twice in our three years and we tell the guys all the time that you don’t get many chances and it goes by so quickly.”
The Wildcats lost in the Northeast Regional final when Goumas and his classmates were freshmen and they had a streak of 10 straight tournament appearances snapped the next year.
“We learned that year there are no guarantees,” van Riemsdyk said. “It makes you want even more to win the next game in the tournament, to get back to the Frozen Four.”
The Wildcats last made it to the Frozen Four in 2003 when they advanced to the championship game and lost to Minnesota, 5-1, in Buffalo. That closed a string of four Frozen Four appearances in six years.
The goal remains to return.
First, there’s the matter of competing in the new-look Hockey East: New team in Notre Dame; new coaches in Berlin native Red Gendron at Maine, on for Tim Whitehead, and David Quinn replacing Jack Parker at Boston University; and even a new schedule with league teams playing each other only twice a season in games that count in the conference standings.
UNH has finished outside the top four in the league each of the last two seasons and thus has had to play its quarterfinal series on the road. The Wildcats lost in three tight games each year and did not make it to the TD Garden to compete in the league championship round.
“The ultimate goal is the national championship,” Wyer said. “But we want home ice advantage for the Hockey East playoffs and to make it to Boston. We want to be playing here at the Whit.”
And, come the second week in April, they want to be playing in the Frozen Four at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.