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December 13. 2012 8:43PM

Allen Lessels' College Notebook: What a difference for UNH

DURHAM -- Just as it did last year, the University of New Hampshire hockey team closed out the first half of the season with a one-goal loss to Boston University.

That, thankfully, is where the similarities to last season end.

Last season the Wildcats struggled early and put themselves in a hole they tried to battle out of the rest of the year.

This time around, they've put themselves in great position for the rest of the season.

"Let's face it," said UNH coach Dick Umile. "We only have two losses so it's better than what I expected with our league and the schedule that we had."

Umile and his team were confident they had the pieces to compete among the upper echelon in Hockey East and nationally.

But this? The Wildcats went on a season-opening run that had them ranked No. 1 in the country before the 3-2 loss to BU last Thursday.

They're 11-2-2 overall and ranked No. 2 in the country behind Boston College. And at 8-2-1 in Hockey East they trail BC by two points in the standings.

Led by the goaltending of Casey DeSmith, a sophomore out of Rochester, they have 17 points in the league standings through 11 games. Last year, the Wildcats totaled 24 points in 27 league games.

At Christmas last year, they were 6-9-2 overall and 4-7-1 in the league.

"Last year we were fighting to stay alive," said senior defenseman and captain Connor Hardowa. "This year we're trying to keep moving forward."

The first goal is to win the league championship.

"We want to always compete in the top bracket and give ourselves a chance to win the regular season," Umile said. "After the first half, we've given ourselves a chance to compete for it. It's going to get tougher."

The Wildcats are a point ahead of BU in the standings and have completed the season series with the Terriers. They won the first two games against BU.

UNH has yet to play BC, Providence or Merrimack. Providence is fourth in the standings and Merrimack is two points behind the Friars in a three-way tie for fifth.

The Wildcats face Boston College in a home-and-home series on Jan. 11 and 12 in their next league games.

Their next game, though, is against Dartmouth, which is also off to an impressive start.

The Wildcats and Big Green meet in the first round of the Ledyard National Bank Classic in Hanover on Dec. 30. Bemidji State and Massachusetts play in the other first-round game.

The winners of those two games play for the tournament championship on Dec. 31 at 7 p.m. and there's a consolation game at 4.

Dartmouth is 7-2-2 overall and 4-1-1 in the ECAC.

The Big Green are ranked No. 10 in the country and have a more lofty spot in the PairWise rankings that mimic the system used to pick teams for the NCAA tournament.

BC leads the PairWise rankings. UNH is second and Dartmouth third.

The Big Green quickly get back to ECAC play after their tournament. They are at Quinnipiac on Jan. 4 and at Princeton on Jan. 5.

Umile expects Greg Burke, a senior forward from Lee, to be back in the lineup against Dartmouth. Burke hurt his shoulder in a game at UMass-Lowell on Nov. 16 and has missed the last six games.

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PLYMOUTH STATE puts its six-game winning streak on the line when it closes out the pre-holiday portion of the schedule with a home game against Southern New Hampshire on Saturday at 2.

The Panthers, under coach Craig Russell, are 7-1-0 overall and 5-1-0 in the Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference.

SNHU fell to 2-6-2 with a 3-2 loss to Nichols on Wednesday night.

Plymouth is coming off a 1-0 win over Fitchburg State on Saturday.

Tyler Ingerson, a junior goalie from Concord, made 35 saves for the shutout. Ingerson is 3-0-0 with a 0.67 goals against average and .974 save percentage. Senior Jack Astedt has a 4-1-0 record with a 2.37 GAA and .923 save percentage.

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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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