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November 09. 2012 12:30AM

Allen Lessels' UNH Notebook: Skaters look to stay perfect at Whittemore

DURHAM -- The No 9-ranked University of New Hampshire men's hockey takes a brief break from its month-long road trek to square off against Vermont on Saturday night at the Whittemore Center.

The No. 10-ranked football team gets a brief break. Period. The Wildcats, after playing 10 straight Saturdays, are off this weekend. They close out the regular season next weekend, Nov. 17, with a home game against hard-charging Towson.

If all goes well, Sean McDonnell's team will then earn a bye for the first round of the NCAA tournament and begin playoff action on Dec. 1.

The hockey team is 5-1-1 overall and 3-1-1 in Hockey East and has not lost a game at home (4-0-0).

Vermont is 1-2-2 both overall and in Hockey East and comes in off its first win of the season, a 2-0 shutout at home over Providence on Saturday.

"It's going to be a tough challenge," said UNH junior defenseman Eric Knodel. "They're going to come in here looking for another win."

The Wildcats are following up on a win, too. They bounced back impressively from a 2-1 overtime loss at Massachusetts last Friday for a most-satisfying 4-0 win at Maine on Sunday.

Last year, UNH didn't get its first road win until Jan. 11. The Wildcats tied their first road game, 0-0, at Northeastern this year and then had the loss at UMass.

"I'm sure it was in the back of people's minds: 'How long is it going to take to get a road win this year?" said senior captain and defenseman Connor Hardowa.

The Wildcats answered that question emphatically in Orono, led by the 42 saves of Casey DeSmith, the sophomore from Rochester, and two goals by senior Austin Block.

DeSmith captured Hockey East Defensive Player of the Weeks honors for the third straight week and leads the league with a .947 save percentage and 1.54 goals against average.

After scoring one goal over two games, UNH coach Dick Umile shook things up and adjusted his lines for the Maine game.

The top two lines had Greg Burke, a senior from Lee, centering for junior Dalton Speelman and senior John Henrion, and sophomore Grayson Downing working between junior Kevin Goumas and Block.

A couple of regulars, juniors Nick Sorkin and Jeff Silengo, were not in the lineup.

Umile said he plans to go with the same top two units against Vermont.

The move got the attention of the players.

"It's definitely a wakeup call, not only for a couple of guys not in the lineup," Hardowa said. "It wakes everybody up and tells everyone that nobody's guaranteed a spot in the lineup. A lot of people noticed."

After Vermont, the Wildcats have four more road games before they return to the Whittemore Center for a Nov. 3 game against UMass-Lowell.

UNH is at UMass-Lowell next Friday night and at Boston University on Sunday, Nov. 18.

The BU game has been moved to 1 p.m. It was originally scheduled for later in the day but BU requested it be moved when the NFL changed the Patriots-Colts game that day from 1 p.m. to 4:25.

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WHEN first he got a look at UNH's football schedule for this fall, junior running back Chris Setian was a little concerned.

It seemed like a long, long time before the Wildcats got their one-week break and a Saturday off.

He and the Wildcats buckled up their helmets and took the field for 10 straight weeks and the way things played out and they rolled to a record of 8-2 and a current six-game win streak, this week's break came at just the right time Setian said.

"It's a perfect time," Setian said. "It's a good time to get healthy, a good time to rest up because hopefully we've got another five weeks ahead of us."

It's not official yet, but the Wildcats have all but locked up a ninth straight appearance in the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision playoffs and they are excited about the idea of making a deep run in the tournament.

First, they must deal with Towson, the defending Colonial Athletic Association champion and the pre-season pick to lead the league again. The Tigers are 5-4 and playing for their playoff lives against winless Rhode Island on Saturday.

UNH has much to play for in its finale, including the possibility of its first outright CAA championship since 1994, a little revenge from a 56-42 loss at Towson last year and more.

"A lot can happen with that one victory," Setian said. "It's 9-2 instead of 8-3, seedings, a home game possibly in the playoffs. There's a lot riding on this game."

UNH administrators will bid for home games in the playoffs, but it's longshot that the school will to be awarded any.

To have any shot at all at getting a home game, the Wildcats must beat Towson.

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THE men's soccer team plays UMBC for the America East championship on the road on Saturday night at 7.

UNH, the No. 5 seed in the tournament, advanced to the finals with a 1-0 win over Vermont on Wednesday. No. 2 UMBC beat Stony Brook, also 1-0, in its semifinal match.

UNH and UMBC played to a 1-1 tie on Oct. 6 in Durham.

The finale is a rematch of the 2010 championship game. The teams tied 0-0 in that one and UMBC won the game and took the title on penalty kicks.

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The men's basketball season opens its season with a home game against Div. III Suffolk on Saturday at 1 p.m.

UNH then plays the first of five straight road games at Dartmouth on Tuesday at 7.

The women's team plays its first game at Yale on Wednesday at 7.

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Allen Lessels covers college sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. He may be reached at alessels@unionleader.com.


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