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December 03. 2012 8:48PM

UNH men's hockey team earns No. 1 ranking


GRAYSON DOWNING 
They're back on top of the college hockey world.

The University of New Hampshire hockey team, riding an eight-game unbeaten streak and off to one of its best starts ever, pulled down the No. 1 ranking in the country in both weekly polls released on Monday.

The Wildcats swapped places with Hockey East rival and defending national champion Boston College, which had held the top spot.

"It's just a larger target on your chest and you've got to be able to handle it," said UNH coach Dick Umile. "You've got to play harder. I told the team, 'It says a lot for what you guys have accomplished and where you're at, but you've got to look ahead at what's coming.'"

A major challenge sits straight ahead: No. 7-ranked Boston University comes to the Whittemore Center to take on the Wildcats on Thursday night at 7 in UNH's last league contest until a home-and-home series with Boston College on Jan. 11 and 12.

"The BU game is our primary goal and this is all about Christmas," Umile said. "This game is the big present out there and it's what we want. We had a good practice today and everyone is focused. But we're playing a real good team. You can play well and lose at this level, but we definitely need to continue to play well."

UNH swept a series from UMass Lowell last weekend, winning both games 5-2, to improve its record to 11-1-2. It's the fewest losses a UNH team has ever had through 14 games.

In the process, forward Grayson Downing earned Hockey East Player of the Week honors. The sophomore registered two goals and two assists.

The Wildcats were able to jump over Boston College because the Eagles split their weekend series with Boston University.

BU snapped BC's 10-game winning streak with a 4-2 win at home on Friday. BC got some revenge with a 5-2 win at home on Saturday night.

Boston College is now 11-2-0. BU is 8-5-0.

UNH collected 31 of the 50 first-place votes in the United States College Hockey Online poll and was first on 24 of the 34 ballots in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine.

BC received the other first-place votes.

Miami, Minnesota, Notre Dame and Denver were ranked third through sixth in the USCHO poll and BU was tied with Western Michigan for seventh.

Dartmouth, 6-2-2, was No. 10 in both polls. The Big Green play Vermont at home on Wednesday night.

It's the first time UNH has been atop the polls since a brief stay nearly six years ago.

The Wildcats were No. 1 in the poll of Jan. 29, 2007 with a 19-4-1 record. They split a pair of games with Maine the next weekend, losing 4-2 at Verizon Wireless Arena and winning the next night in Durham, and they slipped to No. 3 in the rankings.

UNH was ranked in the top five most of that season.

This year, coming off a rare losing season, the Wildcats were not ranked in the pre-season.

They took care of that quickly with a five-game win streak to open the season and have been winning games, playing well on offense and defense as well as special teams, and climbing in the rankings ever since.

Senior Austin Block said before the Lowell series that he doesn't mind having the target of a high ranking and he thinks it keeps the team focused.

"It's not where you start, it's where you finish," Block said. "That's pretty much what our motto is going to be from here on out."

Guys like Block and senior defensemen Conner Hardowa, the captain, and Brett Kostolansky help deliver that message, Umile said.

"The ranking says a lot for the program and the university," the coach said. "But now we've got to back it up. It just gets a little tougher. But that's OK. I think we've got a mature team and I think they understand that. The leadership understands it, there's no doubt about that."

alessels@unionleader.com

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