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February 12. 2013 8:23PM

Allen Lessels' UNH Notebook: No. 5 Wildcats have no room for a late-season let-up

DURHAM -- THE University of New Hampshire hockey team has seen the last of the Whittemore Center for this month.

The Wildcats, ranked No. 5 in the country, have eight games remaining in the regular season as they try to wrap up a home ice berth for the Hockey East playoffs and a spot in the NCAA tournament.

The first four of the final eight are on the road starting tonight at Providence College. UNH plays at Boston College on Sunday and is at Vermont for a pair on Feb. 22 and 23. The final four are at home with series against Massachusetts (March 1 and 2) and then Maine (March 8 and 9).

UNH and Providence played to a 3-3 tie at the Whittemore Center on Saturday in a game that began what UNH coach Dick Umile is considering a long weekend series.

"We've got to go down there and whoever wins gets three out of four points and it will be a big weekend," Umile said.

Tonight's game was originally scheduled for last Friday and was postponed by the snowstorm.

The stakes are high, as they will likely be from here on out.

"Every game the rest of the way feels like a championship game, almost," said senior forward Austin Block. "Hockey East is on the line."

UNH, Boston College and Boston University have struggled some since the holiday break, opening the door for others - Merrimack and Providence foremost among them - to move in and challenge for the top spots in the league.

The Wildcats are 16-7-3 overall and at 11-6-2 in the league, have the exact same record as Merrimack, and are tied with the Warriors for second place in the league, just a point behind Boston College.

BU and Providence, 10-10-6 and 8-6-5, are tied for fourth place and the final home ice berth, three points behind UNH and Merrimack.

Providence, which had gone 0-15-2 in its last 17 games against UNH entering the season, won the first game between the teams this season, 6-5, on Jan. 9 at the Whittemore Center.

Friar freshman Jon Gillies, whose dad, Bruce, was a UNH goalie in the mid-1980s, had 37 saves in the win over UNH and 41 in the tie on Saturday night.

He and Casey DeSmith, UNH's sophomore goalie from Rochester, are tied for the third-best goals against average in the league at 2.21. Gillies has the second-best save percentage at .927 and DeSmith is right behind at .926.

The Wildcats will try to do a better job of containing Providence freshman forward Nick Saracino tonight. He was all over the ice on Saturday and figured in each of the Providence goals with a pair of scores and an assist.

UNH, strong at penalty killing all season, also needs to control Providence's power play.

The Friars scored on their first two power plays of the night and then had their third opportunity with a minute and 29 seconds left in regulation.

"Having given up two power play goals already, it wasn't a comfortable feeling giving up a power play in the last minute and a half," Umile said.

But the Wildcats killed off that through the end of regulation and into overtime and hung on for the tie.

Still, it was the first time they had given up two man-advantage goals in a game all season.

Now the Wildcats, 0-2-1 in their last three games at the Whittemore Center, hit the road for Providence, then Boston and Burlington.

"You always want to win at home because you know going on the road is tough," Block said. "You get off that bus and try to get your legs going and some nights it's harder than others. On the other hand, getting away from home sometimes is good. You hang out with the guys on the bus and you're with the team a little bit and getting ready for the game mentally on the bus ride."


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The men's basketball team, 6-16 overall and 2-8 in America East, takes on UMBC in Lundholm Gymnasium tonight at 7.

UNH is in eighth place in the nine-team league and UMBC, 6-18 and 4-7, is tied for seventh with Maine. Junior Patrick Konan scored 19 points in a 68-57 UNH loss at UMBC on Jan. 9.
______
The women's swimming and diving team, led by sophomore Katie Mann, competes in the America East championships at Maine from Thursday through Sunday.

UNH finished third in America East last year.
______
The women's basketball team, 9-13 overall and 4-6 in America East, plays at UMBC tonight.

The Wildcats, who have won three of their last four, are trying to stay a step ahead of UMBC. The Retrievers at 4-7 are tied for sixth place in the league with Stony Brook. UNH and Vermont are tied for fourth at 4-6.

alessels@unionleader.com

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