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Will this be the year for Wildcats?
Maxim Gaudreault (14) puts a shot on goaltender Casey DeSmith during UNH's NCAA hockey practice Thursday at Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)
Four times the school has played host to the NCAA Northeast Regional at the Verizon Wireless Arena and four times the Wildcats have watched another team win the thing and move on to the Frozen Four.
"We've had some good teams in the past and we've had some good regionals here," said coach Dick Umile on Thursday. "Maybe we didn't get quite the bounces that we needed whether it was against Boston University or it was against Notre Dame, but they competed hard. We like the venue and hopefully that will change this regional."
Denver, UMass Lowell and Wisconsin all plan to have their own say in that.
UMass Lowell, the No. 1 seed, and Wisconsin, the No. 4, get things going this afternoon at 4:30. No. 2 New Hampshire and No. 3 Denver are slated to begin at 8 p.m.
The winners play at 6:30 on Saturday for the regional title and a ticket to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh on April 11-13.
The regional, considered by many to be the toughest of the four in the country, brings a mixed bag of contenders.
UMass Lowell and Wisconsin each had a great second half of the season and they are two of the hottest teams in the land, coming off impressive showings in winning their league tournaments.
UNH and Denver had super starts to the season and each lost early in its league tournament and has not played since March 17.
Denver and Wisconsin have 13 NCAA hockey championships between them. Denver has won seven and is the most recent team to win consecutive titles with triumphs in 2004 and 2005. The 2005 win included a 4-2 decision over UNH in the regional final in Amherst, Mass.
Neither UNH nor Lowell has won the NCAA Div. I title.
Lowell has never been to the Frozen Four and New Hampshire, which is in the tournament for the 11th time in the last 12 years, last advanced to the final round in 2003. After losing in the first round of the regional the first two years in Manchester in 2004 and 2007, the Wildcats won their first game and played in the regional final in 2009 and 2011.
Lowell and Wisconsin have not played each other since 1988 and the Badgers won then, 3-2, and hold a 7-1-1 edge in the series.
UNH and the Pioneers last played in Denver on Nov. 2. Just to add a little more intrigue, players from both sides are looking for a little revenge after that one.
The Pioneers want it as a team. They owned a 3-0 lead halfway through the first period, still led 4-2 going into the third and lost the game, 6-4.
"We ended up blowing it," said Pioneer junior forward and leading scorer Nick Shore.
"We didn't play the way you need to play when you have a three-goal and a two-goal lead," said Denver assistant coach David Lassonde, a native of Rochester who spent 17 years as an assistant at UNH. "We were a little too risky. But that's kind of the nature of the way we play. We're hoping we got that out of our system with the understanding that if we play that way at this time of the year, there will be no next night."
UNH goalie Casey DeSmith, a sophomore from Rochester, is looking for a little payback of his own.
He started the November game, but was pulled and relieved by junior Jeff Wyer after giving up the three goals on eight shots in just over nine minutes.
"I feel like I have something to prove after a rough game," DeSmith said.
Umile and DeSmith said the team is ready to go.
"I don't think we're coming into the game feeling like an underdog," DeSmith said. "I think we come into the game feeling confident. We know how we can play and we know why we've had success this year and we're just going to have to try to replicate it."
UNH officials hope that UMass Lowell and a pair of attractive matchups lead to a crowd of at least 8,000.
Denver coach George Gwozdecky is all for a rocking Verizon, even if it's full of fans cheering for another team.
"I think that any team that goes to the NCAA tournament wants to play in an atmosphere that's energized," he said. "We've played in neutral buildings, even last year in Green Bay. There's no atmosphere. I mean, it's awful. Whether it's UNH fans or a combination, I just think any athlete wants to play in a building where there's that national tournament atmosphere."