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November 22. 2012 8:30PM

Allen Lessels' UNH Notebook: Wildcats getting defensive on the ice

DURHAM -- Now don't get the wrong idea about the University of New Hampshire hockey team and penalty killing as it heads for a couple of mile-high showdowns this weekend: It's not exactly that the Wildcats want to take penalties and look forward to facing opponent power plays.

But Dick Umile's team doesn't dread penalty-killing duties, either.

"I think we look at the penalty kill as a chance to get the upper hand," said senior defenseman Brett Kostolansky. "We can get some momentum. We can kill it and take momentum away from them and that's key for us."

The Wildcats have been one of the best teams in the country at killing penalties.

Perhaps it's something in the Granite State water.

UNH has allowed two goals in 37 power-play chances by its opponents for a 94.6 kill percentage.

That number is second only to Dartmouth, which has killed 28 of 29 penalties for 96.6 percent.

UNH's penalty killers will come under fire this weekend. So, too, will Dartmouth's. The Big Green play at No. 1-ranked Boston College on Saturday at 4.

The Wildcats have climbed to the No. 3 ranking in the country with an 8-1-1 overall record and take on No. 14 Colorado College tonight in Colorado Springs. On Saturday, they play at No. 2 Denver.

CC is 7-5-0 overall and Denver is 9-1-0 and they each have productive power plays. In fact, they each have scored 10 goals in 42 power-play chances for a 23.8 percentage, which is tied for eighth-best in the nation.

UNH's penalty-killing success falls in line with goaltender Casey DeSmith's outstanding play in net and the team's strong start to the season on defense overall.

The Wildcats, said head coach Umile and assistant Jim Tortorella, have bought into what the coaches are preaching about a whole-team approach to defense.

They embrace the challenge of killing penalties, too.

"I talk to the guys a lot and I know coach talks to them a lot about this being an opportunity when we're a man down," Tortorella said. "An opportunity to play better defense. An opportunity to do some things we're not going to pay attention to on a five-on-five situation."

The focus on special teams extends to the moments after a power play, or after killing a penalty, and trying to capitalize on those chances to create momentum as well.

"A guy like Brett (Kostolansky) realizes he can play great defense and help our team generate momentum and win games," Tortorella said.

UNH is allowing a stingiest-in-the-country 1.22 goals per game. Denver is scoring a nation's best 4.50 a game.

DeSmith has a 1.19 goals-against average and .961 save percentage.

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THE FOOTBALL TEAM begins play in its ninth straight NCAA Football Championship tournament on Dec. 1 at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C.

UNH and Wofford are both 8-3 overall and both were 6-2 to earn a share of their conference titles. Wofford is in the tournament for the fifth time in the last six years.

The Terriers split their games with Southern Conference rivals Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, both of whom also made the playoffs. Wofford lost to Georgia Southern, 17-9, and beat Appalachian State, 38-28.

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MINNESOTA, undefeated and the defending NCAA champion, comes to town to play the UNH women's hockey team on Saturday and Sunday. Both games start at 2.

The Golden Gophers are 14-0-0 this year and are on an NCAA record 22-game winning streak dating back to last season.

Junior forward Amanda Kessel leads Minnesota in scoring with 17 goals and 21 assists for 38 points. One of her brothers, Blake, starred at UNH and now plays with Adirondack in the American Hockey League, and another, Phil, played for the Bruins.

UNH is 6-7-1 overall and 3-2-1 in Hockey East and is unbeaten in its last four at 3-0-1.

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THE WOMEN'S BASKETBALL TEAM puts its 2-1 record up against Cornell in its home opener on Sunday at 1. The game is UNH's only one at home in its first six games.

The Wildcats lost at Boston College, 64-59, on Tuesday.

Cornell is 2-1 and beat Manhattan College in its last game on Tuesday night, 70-60.

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THE MEN'S BASKETBALL TEAM, 2-2, plays at Holy Cross on Saturday at 4. The Wildcats are at Connecticut on Thursday. UNH lost at NJIT, 69-67, on Wednesday.

Holy Cross is 3-2. The Crusaders lost at St. John's, 65-53, on Wednesday and beat Maine, 57-54, in its previous game.

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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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