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DeSmith's been UNH's main man in net
UNH goaltender Casey DeSmith, of Rochester, climbs the dugout steps to the Fenway Park field prior to practice last year for the Frozen Fenway game against Maine. (JOSH GIBNEY/UNION LEADER FILE)
DURHAM -- University of New Hampshire assistant hockey coach Jim Tortorella calls them "when" saves.
Head coach Dick Umile often mentions that Casey DeSmith, UNH's standout sophomore goalie from Rochester, comes up with important saves at important times.
"It's not how many, it's when," Tortorella said when discussing DeSmith last week. "It's the end of a period. They're on a two-on-one and we're up by a goal and he keeps it 1-0 and we go into the locker room and come out and make it 2-0."
DeSmith refers to them as key saves.
"A big save can turn a game or keep the game going in your favor," DeSmith said. "I've been fortunate to make quite a few of them this year. That's real important if you want to keep winning. ... You maintain the lead. You don't let them tie it up. You don't let them get any momentum."
DeSmith and the Wildcat defense overall have been masters at stifling opponents thus far this season and their efforts have led them to a 9-1-2 record and a No. 3 ranking in the country. And while he struggled in Saturday night's game against No. 2 Denver, giving up three goals in a little more than nine minutes before getting relieved by Jeff Wyer, DeSmith has been a stalwart overall.
Call them "when" saves or key saves or whatever else you'd like to call them and DeSmith has been making them. Saves of all sorts, actually. Game after game.
Already he has four shutouts. The school record for a season is seven.
His goaltending statistics are among the very best in the country.
After a tough 4-4 tie at Colorado College on Friday night when the home team came back from a 4-0 deficit, DeSmith took a .952 save percentage and a goals against average of 1.43 into Saturday night's game against Denver, the No. 2 team in the nation.
To put those numbers in perspective: NHLer Ty Conklin owns the top two school marks for best goals against average for a season at 1.84 in 1998-99 and 2.05 in 2000-01. Kevin Regan has the two best save percentages, .935 in 2006-07 and .930 in 2007-08.
DeSmith played with the Indiana Ice in the United States Hockey League before UNH and came in a year ago expecting to play behind senior Matt DiGirolamo and then get a chance to compete for the starting job this year.
But the Wildcats struggled early and by Christmas DeSmith had taken over the starting goaltender's job. He finished with a more-than-respectable .926 save percentage and 2.33 GAA.
This year, he's been on fire.
The four shutouts came in a five-game stretch that began on Oct. 27 and DeSmith and UNH had given up three goals total in their six games heading into this weekend's series in Colorado.
"He's very athletic, he's quick, he reads the game and he anticipates the play," Umile said. "He comes out of the crease and he takes away angles. He's an aggressive goalie. ... I think the puck is like a basketball to him right now and he sees it very, very well."
DeSmith has been named Hockey East's Goalie of the Week four of the last five weeks and he set a school record with a stretch of 203 minutes and 32 seconds without giving up a goal before Boston University got a puck past him in a 3-1 UNH win last week. He has a .972 save percentage and 0.86 GAA in league games.
"When things are going your way and when you're seeing the puck well, it definitely seems to move slower and the game seems to move slower," deSmith said. "The reads get easier. You react to the shot quicker. Little things like that."
DeSmith said he can't recall a stretch where things have gone this well.
"But I haven't had a defense like I have now," he said.
He has been quick to credit the team defense UNH has been playing from the goalies to the defensemen to the forwards right along, and so have Umile and Tortorella and others.
Senior captain Connor Hardowa leads a veteran group of defensemen that also includes senior Brett Kostolansky, juniors Justin Agosta and Eric Knodel, sophomore Trevor van Riemsdyk and freshman Brett Pesce. Pesce, who just turned 18 earlier this month, fills the only hole left by graduation and has been very good, Umile said.
BU coach Jack Parker has been impressed by DeSmith and the UNH defense since they nearly knocked his team out of the Hockey East quarterfinals in a hard-fought three-game set last March. UNH beat BU, 4-1, at home on Oct. 20 and then had the win last week.
"DeSmith had a great second half last year," Parker said last week. "He makes the puck hit him and he's never out of position. He doesn't make spectacular saves because he doesn't have to. Usually when goalies do that, it's because they're out of position."
UNH's success, Parker feels, is based on more than a red-hot goalie.
"I think their overall team defense is fabulous, he said. "We had 46 shots last week, but I don't think we got five good ones. They cleared out well in front of the net and they don't mind playing in their own zone. You could see that coming last year when DeSmith took over. Through center ice, they had someone in our face and we didn't have anybody to pass the puck to."
The defensive tenacity has teamed very nicely with DeSmith's goaltending thus far.
"He's very confident right now," Umile said.
DeSmith is confident about the defense in front of him and the defense has confidence in him.
"All we have to do is worry about scoring a couple of goals and we've got a good shot at winning, the way he's playing," Umile said.
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Allen Lessels covers college sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. He may be reached at email@example.com.