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March 31. 2013 7:43PM

Allen Lessels' UNH Notebook: It's starting to sink in


University of New Hampshire's Dalton Speelman(10) skates away as UMass-Lowell players celebrate their 2-0 win in the NCAA Northeast Regional Final hosted at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester Saturday (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)

MANCHESTER -- The University of New Hampshire hockey team was going to have a hard time scoring goals against Massachusetts Lowell on Saturday night in the championship game of the NCAA Northeast Regional tournament at Verizon Wireless Arena.

Of that there was no doubt.

The River Hawks play stifling defense in front of their outstanding freshman goaltender, Connor Hellebuyck, and that's the major reason why the team that won its first Hockey East regular season championship, its first Hockey East tournament title and then its first regional with a 2-0 win over UNH may well roll on to its first NCAA crown.

"Things will sink in here in the next few days," said UMass Lowell coach Norm Bazin not long after his team earned a semifinal spot opposite Yale in Pittsburgh on April 11. "For the school, it's priceless."

Meanwhile, out in the hallway, outside their locker room, things were already sinking in for the Wildcats, who saw another good season come up a little too short.

They talked about Lowell's defense and they talked about the River Hawks pouncing and scraping for a goal in the last minute of the second period by Scott Wilson, one of the team's several tenacious forwards.

When asked, the Wildcats mentioned playing without their two most productive forwards.

"That was not the game plan," said senior forward John Henrion with a forced smile.

Junior Kevin Goumas and sophomore Grayson Downing - who produced 25 goals and 73 points between them during the season - each missed his first game of the year as the result of head injuries suffered in Friday's 5-2 first-round win over Denver.

Still, the Wildcats said, they were confident they had enough weapons to get the job done.

They could not.

They had trouble generating offense and quality scoring chances and the loss of Goumas and Downing, who each center one of the top two lines, showed especially on the one power play chance the team had and after the first Lowell goal when the Wildcats tried to control the puck and get something going in the enemy end.

Having Goumas and Downing, of course, would not have assured a different result and coach Dick Umile, among others, commended the way the team responded to adversity.

"I thought they did a terrific job," Umile said. "It changed things but it's a team and other guys stepped up like they have in the past."

A loss, though, is a loss.

The Wildcats had a few chances down 1-0, but could not tie it up and then Adam Chapie made it 2-0 with a nice move with 6:02 left and that was that.

The River Hawks moved on to Pittsburgh and the Wildcats pick up the pieces of a comeback season.

They rebounded nicely from a rare down year in 2011-12 and qualified for the NCAA tournament for the 11th time in the last 12 years. They got off to a great start and rose to No. 1 in the country late in the first half of the season.

They played well for the most part in the second half, but could not match the results of the first half.

The Wildcats are positioned well for next season. They lose a couple of key defensemen in captain Connor Hardowa and Brett Kostolansky. Seniors Henrion, Austin Block and Scott Pavelski all had career years and Greg Burke of Lee had his season cut short by injury.

A strong core of players, starting with Goumas and Downing up front and including sophomore defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and goalie Casey DeSmith, a sophomore from Rochester, are due to return.

This was the fourth time in a row UNH has won its first game in a regional only to come up a win shy of a coveted spot in the Frozen Four.

The ultimate goal remains an elusive national championship.

The on-ice leg of the journey begins again in just over six months.

The road ahead gets no easier. Lowell and Providence, a couple of the upstarts in Hockey East, are very young teams. Defending national champion Boston College, bounced in the East Regional on Saturday night, will be hungry.

So, too, will Boston University with David Quinn taking over for the legendary Jack Parker as coach. The Terriers, along with Merrimack and Maine, missed the national tournament and will be looking to get back.

Then there's Notre Dame, which begins play in Hockey East in the fall.

None of which changes the big picture: "We know we made it to the final eight this year and we're going to be older and hopefully we go all the way next year," said junior defenseman Justin Agosta. "Coach deserves it."

Added Eric Knodel, another junior defenseman and the final player to board the bus back to Durham late on Saturday night: "We're going to be back here as soon as possible. It's always frustrating. Only one team wins in the end. You give it your best shot."

For the record, the 2014 regionals are in Worcester, Mass., Bridgeport, Conn., Cincinnati and St. Paul, Minn.

UNH plans to bid for, and expects to land, a regional again in 2015.


alessels@unionleader.com


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