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February 09. 2013 9:50PM

Allen Lessels' College Hockey: UNH, Dartmouth skaters eye NCAAs

DURHAM - The University of New Hampshire hockey team, like Dartmouth College and numerous other teams across the country, is waging its battles these days with a couple of missions in mind.

The more immediate goal, and thus the one the Wildcats are more interested in talking about, is to fend off various challengers in Hockey East and finish as one of the top four teams in the league standings and secure a home ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

Accomplishing that task would go a long way toward the next goal: Being one of the 16 teams that qualifies for the NCAA Division I tournament. If it makes its way into the NCAA tournament, UNH gets to play at the Verizon Wireless Arena on the last weekend in March in the Northeast Regional.

"We're focusing on home ice right now," said UNH coach Dick Umile. "That's going to be so important."

The chase for home ice continues this afternoon when the Wildcats take on Providence College at the Whittemore Center at 4 p.m. UNH and the Friars meet again on Wednesday in Providence in a game that was postponed on Friday by the snowstorm.

UNH is 16-7-2 and ranked No. 4 in the country in one poll and No, 5 in another. The Wildcats are in second place in the league, two points behind Boston College, one ahead of Merrimack two ahead of Boston University and three in front of Providence

Providence is 10-10-5 overall and at 8-6-4 sits fifth in the league. The Friars knocked off the Wildcats, 6-5, three weeks ago in Durham.

The Hockey East quarterfinals are a best-of-three series with the top four teams hosting the next four teams in the standings.

After finishing in the top four and hosting a quarterfinal series for years, UNH had to go to Boston University for the quarterfinals last year and was knocked out of the league tournament, two games to one.

Dartmouth, too, is trying to position itself for the ECAC tournament and beyond.

The Big Green were tied for third place with Union in the ECAC going into Saturday night's games.

Dartmouth, 11-8-3 overall and 7-6-2 in the league, plays at Harvard, 5-15-1 and 3-12-0, today at 4 in its only game of the weekend. The game was postponed from Saturday night because of the storm.

Winning the league tournament guarantees a spot in the NCAAs.

The rest of the teams receive at-large bids to the event.

If tournament teams were selected last week, both UNH and Dartmouth would have been invited.

In the Pairwise rankings that calculate strength of schedule and other factors and mimic the system used by the NCAA to select at-large teams, UNH was rated fifth last week and Dartmouth was tied for 15th.

The Wildcats have slipped a bit from where they were slotted at the holiday break and Dartmouth has dropped even more.

Still both are projected to be in the field at the moment.

In fact, in the bracketology feature on United States College Hockey Online that predicts possible pairings and the tournament field, Dartmouth has placed been in Manchester with UNH the last couple of weeks.

The most recent bracketology had Dartmouth playing Boston College while Minnesota State plays UNH in the first round in Manchester.

The week before, bracketology's pairings were Dartmouth vs. UNH and Alaska vs. Boston College in the first round.

NCAA rankings and tournament pairings are considerations for down the road, said UNH senior forward Austin Block.

"I don't personally look at that kind of stuff," he said. "We don't talk about that in the locker room. As far as I'm concerned we need to win every game and the rankings will take care of themselves. Obviously it's nice and we want to be as highly ranked as we can, but I don't think it really helps the mindset if you focus on stuff like that."

Focusing on getting home ice for the league playoffs is the way to go, he figures

"It's huge," Block said. "There's nothing better than playing here, especially playoff hockey, we can put a streak together and get home ice and I think that will give us the best chance to make a long run down the stretch and into the national tournament."

Into the tournament and back to Manchester and the Verizon.

The NCAA has brought the Regionals to Manchester four times starting in 2004 and UNH has qualified each time they have been in town.

They'll try to make it five-for-five over the next several weeks.

alessels@unionleader.com


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