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College Hockey: Move to top line for UNH's Thrush has helped lift 'Cats

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 05. 2015 11:23PM
Casey Thrush, right, shown earlier this season against Maine, has bolstered UNH’s stretch run by providing a physical presence on the first line. (MARK BOLTON/UNION LEADER FILE)

DURHAM — It was mid-December when University of New Hampshire coach Dick Umile determined he needed to shake things up in an attempt to save his sinking ship of a hockey season.

UNH was 4-10-1 and was winless in its last six games (0-5-1) when Umile elevated senior left wing Casey Thrush from the third line to the top line before a non-league game against the University of Maine. That line — Thrush, center Grayson Downing and right wing Tyler Kelleher — produced four goals and five assists that night to help the Wildcats defeat the Black Bears 7-4 in Portland, Maine.

Thrush, who is best known for his defensive skills, scored his second goal of the season in UNH’s next game, a 2-1 loss to Nebraska-Omaha, and then that line produced two goals and six assists when UNH beat Nebraska-Omaha 6-2 the following night.

“Usually things change up when things aren’t going well,” Thrush said. “You try to find some different combinations. My role at the beginning of this year — and for the most part my (UNH) career — has been sort of a defensive role and to be a guy on the penalty kill and things like that, so it was definitely a little bit of a change.”

The Wildcats have posted a 10-7-1 record since Thrush was moved to the top line, which now features senior captain Matt Willows at right wing. Thrush, Downing and Willows have skated together for eight of UNH’s last 10 games (Downing missed two games with an injury). That line’s success is among the reasons UNH will carry a five-game winning streak into its first-round series against the University of Connecticut in the Hockey East tournament.

“We always used Casey as a third-line player to be a defensive forward for us,” Umile said. “When we needed to, we put him on the line with Downing and Willows, and that line has become one of the top lines. Casey made that line go. He brought a physicality to it, and yet he’s got decent numbers (Thrush has a career-high 23 points this season).

“We just needed someone there who brought some kind of physical presence to help Grayson and Willows get the puck. Thrush brought that. Casey’s our best defensive forward, but he can also bring offense to the line.”

Eighth-seeded UNH (14-17-2) and ninth-seeded Connecticut (10-17-7) will open their best-of-three series Friday night (7) at the Whittemore Center in Durham. The teams will meet again Saturday night (7) in Durham. If a third game is necessary, it will be played Sunday (4:30 p.m.) at the Whittemore Center.

“If I had gone up to that top line and not done much I probably wouldn’t be in the offensive role that I am today,” Thrush said. “It’s just about being ready and having confidence in yourself ... so when you get the shot you have to make the most of it.”

UNH won both regular-season meetings with Connecticut, which is playing in the Hockey East tournament for the first time. The Wildcats prevailed 4-1 in Hartford, Conn., and 5-1 in Durham. The Huskies are ranked 55th nationally (out of 59 Division I teams) in scoring offense (1.88).

Greg Collins, a defensive-minded forward who was a captain on UNH’s 2008-09 team, used to pester Umile about being moved from the third line to the first line, but Umile didn’t make the move until late in Collins’ senior season. Umile said he should have elevated Collins sooner, and that mistake is one of the reasons he didn’t hesitate in making a similar move with Thrush.

“I pegged him (Collins) as nothing but a backchecker, and he was a lot better player than that,” Umile said.

Thrush enters tonight’s contest having played in 115 consecutive games.

“I like playing the defensive role,” he said. “It’s fun for me. I like killing penalties. I like blocking shots. I like doing the little things that help our team win.

“Obviously it’s really fun to play a little more offense and be on the scoresheet and everything, but for me I always want to help the team win as best I can. Whatever role coach sees me in, that’s what I’m going to do, and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”