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February 15. 2014 8:19PM

Allen Lessels on UNH Hockey: UNH skaters eye home ice advantage

DURHAM -- Members of the University of New Hampshire hockey team need no reminder of the value of securing home ice advantage for the Hockey East quarterfinals.

This group of UNH seniors, honored on Friday night before they went out and held on late for a 4-3 win over Boston University, has seen both sides of the home, away-from-home debate.

"Getting home ice is definitely important," said senior forward Kevin Goumas after Friday night's game. "It definitely helps. My freshman year we had it and it was pretty big."

The Wildcats finished second in the regular season that year and swept No. 7 Vermont in their best-of-three series to advance to the championship round at the TD Garden in Boston.

The past two years, UNH has not been able to crack the top four and earn the home ice that goes to those positions.

Each year the Wildcats had to go on the road and played well, but came up just short of winning a series.

Two years ago, they went to Boston University and won the first game, 3-2 in double overtime, lost the second and then lost the third, 5-4, again in two overtimes.

Last year, UNH lost its first game at Providence, won the next night 5-2 and then fell 3-2 in the deciding game.

"It's tough to go on the road and take two of three from a good team," Goumas said.

The stakes are high this year.

Last year, the Wildcats had done enough in the regular season and positioned themselves well enough that they earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament despite getting knocked out of the Hockey East tournament in the quarterfinals.

This year, they have no such luxury.

UNH took a 17-15-1 overall record into Saturday night's rematch with BU at Agganis Arena.

The Wildcats are on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament this point and must beef up their resume to qualify for the NCAAs for the 12th time in the last 13 seasons.

The only way to do that is to go deep into the Hockey East tournament.

The Wildcats may need to win the league tournament for the first time since 2003 to get into the national tournament.

They need to get past the quarterfinals and likely to the championship game to at least get back into the discussion for an at-large spot.

The best way to do that is to land one of those top four spots and stay home for the quarterfinals.

It's not going to be easy.

UNH entered Saturday night's game tied with Maine for third place in the league. But the standings are mighty tight and Wildcats have also played a game or two more than the teams around them in the standings.

They have only two games left, while others have three or four, and will sit on the sidelines next weekend while everyone else plays.

That's one of several reasons that holding on for a win on Friday night - thanks largely to junior goalie Casey DeSmith of Rochester - was crucial.

The Wildcats took their two points and moved on.

"Every point is going to be real important," said UNH coach Dick Umile. "Points are hard to come by in this league because of the parity. Everyone is pretty good."

Things were plenty tight last year and if anything they may have gotten tighter still.

Last year, UNH finished in a three-way tie for third with BU and Providence. The Wildcats ended up as the fifth seed and on the road at Providence because of tiebreakers.

The Hockey East tournament format has changed this year for the first time in nearly two decades.

With Notre Dame now in the league - and UConn coming aboard next season - all 11 teams make the tournament.

The top five teams in the standings get a bye in the first round of the tournament. Teams in the sixth, seventh and eighth spots play host to the teams in ninth, 10th and 11th in a single game series the weekend of March 7-8.

After those first-round games, the teams will be re-seeded and the top four teams will host the quarterfinals the weekend of March 14-16.

The Wildcats hope to be rocking the Whittemore Center that weekend.



alessels@unionleader.com


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