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November 29. 2012 11:04PM

Defense, goaltending propel Wildcats to best start in years, No. 2 national ranking

DURHAM - After riding a riveting weekend to the No. 2 ranking in the country, the University of New Hampshire men's hockey team is off to one of its best starts ever at 9-1-2.

Why stop now with a home-and-home series on tap with UMass Lowell, starting at the Whittemore Center tonight at 7:30?

"We know it's a huge weekend," said freshman Maxim Gaudreault. "We need to come in and play our game and kind of stick to the game plan and keep our foot on the pedal here going into break. We want to carry as much momentum into the break as we can. "

The Wildcats, who are 6-1-1 in Hockey East, have just three league games - all in a span of seven days - before Jan. 11.

After the game tonight and another on Saturday at Lowell, they close out their regular-season series with Boston University at home on Thursday.

UNH takes on the United States Under-18 team in an exhibition on Sunday, Dec. 9, and then is off until it plays in the Dartmouth College Ledyard National Bank Classic on Dec. 30 and 31.

For the moment, the Wildcats will focus on Lowell and try to build on a weekend in the West that might have gone bad but instead turned into a great success.

"It turned out to be a great trip," said UNH coach Dick Umile. "I think we developed some real character on that trip."

UNH was up 4-0 on Colorado College on Friday night but could not hold the lead and had to settle for a 4-4 tie.

The next night, the Wildcats trailed then-No. 2 Denver 3-0 before the first period was half over. Umile replaced Casey DeSmith, the sophomore from Rochester, with junior goalie Jeff Wyer. The team started back and ultimately pulled off a 6-4 comeback.

Umile said he hadn't decided who would start in goal on Friday.

"Casey didn't play his best, obviously," Umile said of DeSmith's performance in Colorado. "But everyone still has confidence in him. That weekend, it just wasn't happening for him."

The Wildcats gave up more goals in a game each night in Colorado than they had in any other single game all season, but they also scored more on Saturday than they had in any previous game.

Sophomore Grayson Downing scored the first three goals that night, and junior Kevin Goumas added the next three.

"We have some firepower up front," said senior Austin Block, who leads the team with eight goals. "Our defense is one of the best in the country, but hopefully we don't have to rely on all defense, and I think we showed that last weekend."

Now comes Lowell, which was picked to finish second in the league behind Boston College but is off to a slow start.

The River Hawks are 4-5-1 overall and 2-4-1 in Hockey East. They beat UMass Amherst, 8-2, and Princeton, 3-1, in their last two games.

DeSmith made 23 saves for a 3-0 shutout win at Lowell two weeks ago.

The Wildcats, Block said, have more work to do.

"It is nice to be ranked this high, and I think we deserve it," he said. "But there are some things we can fix, and we'll try to do that against Lowell."

Greg Burke, the senior forward from Lee, remains out of the UNH lineup. He hurt his shoulder in the first game against Lowell and will not be back until after Christmas, Umile said.

UNH's penalty killing continues to be among the very best in the country.

The Wildcats have scored more short-handed goals than they have allowed on the power play. They have three shorties, including one by Downing that was their first goal against Denver and got them jump-started. They have killed off the last 22 power plays against them and have allowed two power-play goals in 42 opponent chances overall for a 95.2 percent kill rate, the second-best in the country.

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THE WOMEN'S basketball team, which dropped to 3-2 with a 63-44 loss at Harvard on Wednesday night, plays Quinnipiac in a tournament at Brown on Saturday. The Wildcats play either Brown or Rider on Sunday.

UNH plays Dartmouth on Wednesday at 5:30 in the first half of a men's-women's doubleheader.

The UNH men play Central Connecticut State in the second half of the doubleheader on Wednesday at 7:30.

The men, who played at UConn on Thursday night, play Brown at home on Saturday at 1 p.m. in the first of three straight games in Lundholm Gymnasium.

alessels@unionleader.com


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