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Wildcats just keep winning
DURHAM - At this point a year ago, it was starting to get ugly for the University of New Hampshire hockey team.
The Wildcats were in the midst of a skid in which they eventually lost seven of eight games, with the lone interruption coming in a lopsided win against the overmatched University of Alabama-Huntsville, and the seeds of a season that would end without an NCAA tournament berth were being sewn deep. Ultimately they'd need until Feb. 3 to notch their 10th win.
So if you need any more proof that this year is different than last, just check the standings.
Powered again by multipoint efforts from Grayson Downing and Kevin Goumas, and another big night in the breakout senior season of Austin Block, the Wildcats hit the double-digit mark two months and 15 games earlier than they did in 2011-12, the latest addition to the column coming in the form of Friday's 5-2 win over UMass Lowell before 5,725 fans at the Whittemore Center.
The win wasn't the Wildcats' cleanest, but nevertheless stretched their unbeaten streak to seven straight contests.
"It wasn't pretty," UNH coach Dick Umile said after his team improved to 10-1-2 overall, "but we'll take the win."
A year ago the Wildcats couldn't be picky about any win, needing to scratch and claw their way through the second half just to get into the conference tournament. But with only tonight's rematch at Tsongas Center and Thursday's home game against Boston University between them and the end-of-semester break, the 7-1-1 Wildcats now find themselves at the other end of the standings, just a point behind Boston College for the top spot in Hockey East.
They could overtake the Eagles if things break their way tonight - and not only within the league. Entering the weekend at No. 2, UNH could potentially rise in the polls to No. 1 in the country if top-ranked BC stumbles again.
The Eagles lost at BU (4-2) on Friday, while the Wildcats never trailed, opening the scoring when they once again found a way to generate offense while playing shorthanded midway through the first period. This time they caught Lowell pinching too much on the power play, Brett Kostolansky starting an odd-man rush by chipping the puck ahead to Goumas, who carried it with the patience and presence of the league's leading scorer until a passing lane opened.
When it did, he slid a pass to an uncovered Dowling, who tucked it past Doug Carr, and with that gave UNH its fourth shorthanded goal of the year. Those coming in 43 man-down opportunities, it meant the Wildcats were scoring on 9.3 percent of their shorthanded scenarios - which was, at the time, a better success rate than seven teams nationally had posted on their power play.
"Our penalty kill," Umile said of the unit that thwarted all five Lowell power plays Friday, "has been very, very good."
New Hampshire carried that advantage into the first intermission, then doubled it when John Henrion snapped off a wicked wrister a couple of minutes into the second stanza, but it was later in that frame that the Wildcats really seized control of the contest.
That process started on the power play, when Goumas banged home the rebound of a Nick Sorkin (two assists) bid that rang the post, then 91 seconds later some pretty playmaking stretched the lead again. Carrying the puck behind the net, Austin Block bluffed as if he was headed up the wall, but when both River Hawks defenders went to cut him off, he left a nifty feed to Downing at the side of the crease.
One quick move and it was 4-0, New Hampshire.
"He's a goal scorer," Umile said of Downing. "He's a smart hockey player. He can handle the puck extremely well, he's clever. Five (goals) in his last two (games) - he's playing well."
Lowell did rally a bit, as Shayne Thompson scored with 1.9 ticks to play in the second, then Michael Colantone struck about seven minutes into the third. Casey DeSmith continued to be tested from there, as the River Hawks actually outshot the Wildcats 36-34 for the night, and had a chance with man-advantage with less than eight minutes remaining in regulation.
But Division I's second-ranked penalty kill joined Hockey East's second-stingiest goalie in holding the Hawks there, and with 2:45 left Block put the icing on it by gaining possession with a hard forecheck and rifling his ninth goal of the season into the short side corner. He entered this season with 10 tallies for his career.