DURHAM — It’s a new year for the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team, and the Wildcats are looking to build off their strong finish from last season and get 2015 off to a roaring start.
At a Whittemore Center news conference Thursday afternoon, longtime UNH head coach Dick Umile addressed members of the media and stressed the importance of his team getting wins early on in the season.
“We have to get off to a better start than we have the last two years,” he said. “We will win our share of games but you can’t put yourself in a hole early. It’s hard to get out of it, especially in our league.”
UNH scuffled to a 5-11-1 overall record and 1-5-1 in Hockey East play in its first 16 games last season. UNH, led by then-freshman goaltender Danny Tirone, turned its season around in the second half to finish 19-19-2 overall and 10-11-1 against conference opponents. The Wildcats defeated eventual NCAA champion Providence College before ultimately falling in the Hockey East semifinals to Boston University.
Despite their spirited finish, the Wildcats failed to grasp home-ice advantage throughout the conference playoffs. Umile said the team’s main goal is to focus on getting home-ice advantage throughout the conference postseason.
UNH is in search of scoring after losing two of their best goal scorers from last season.
Grayson Downing led the team in goals with 21 and Matt Willows ranked second among all Wildcats with 19. Both signed entry-level contracts with NHL franchises last spring — Downing with the Minnesota Wild and Willows with the Carolina Hurricanes.
However, New Hampshire returns Tyler Kelleher, who led the team in points last season. Umile said Kelleher is and “always has been a goal scorer” and expects him to be a catalyst for the offense yet again. In 2014-15, Kelleher recorded 19 goals and 24 assists for 42 points. Andrew Poturalski also looks to be one of the team’s top scorers after finishing fourth on the team with 14 goals in his freshman season.
Umile said Kelleher and Poturalski are going to be counted on to help replace the sack of goals that Willows and Downing left behind.
“We have to replace that (goal production),” Umile said. “And they (Poturalski and Kelleher) are the guys that need to replace it with big numbers.”
The Wildcats enter 2015 a young but experienced team. UNH had as many as nine or 10 freshmen playing consistently down the stretch last season. Umile said he also expects to get some offense production out of sophomores Warren Foegele, Shane Eiserman and Jason Salvaggio, among others.
Senior captain Collin MacDonald said that having played significant minutes last season will help the team’s sophomore class make a significant impact this season.
“I think they (sophomores) are a bit more mature than a lot of other sophomore groups in the country,” he said. “Guys know that they need to step up and they will step up.”
UNH’s youth also exists in its goaltending situation. Tirone will likely be the starter, according to Umile. But the head coach said Tirone is going to share time with sophomore Adam Clark early in the season. The two will likely swap starts throughout the first few weeks.
Clark started primarily in the first half of last season and posted a 5-13 record with a 2.93 goals-against average. Tirone took over during the second half and went 14-6-0 while recording a 2.14 GAA.
“I got a ton of experience as a freshman and I’m just hoping to build off it this year,” Tirone said. “Experience is huge I think for me and the whole team. We finished the year great and we’re just bringing that right into this year for a hot start.”
The Wildcats’ season begins on Sunday, Oct. 4 (4 p.m.) against St. Francis Xavier University in an exhibition matchup at the Whittemore Center.