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DURHAM – As its roller coaster of a season rumbles past the midpoint and into a three-week break, the University of New Hampshire men's hockey team finds itself in the midst of a dip.
They lost four. Then won six. They lost two. Then won two.
And now, after dropping a 2-1 decision to Boston College on Saturday night at the Whittemore Center and getting swept in a weekend series with the Eagles, they've lost two straight again.
Yet the Wildcats insist that for all the ups and downs and twists and turns of the first half – they're comfortable with where they currently sit.
"I like the way the team played. Disappointed with the fact we lost, but the effort was there," said UNH coach Dick Umile. "If they compete like that in the second half, I think we'll win our share of games, and we'll be a tough team to beat."
As evidenced in a record that sits at 9-9-1 overall and 5-5-0 within the confines of Hockey East, consistency has been a problem for the Wildcats this season. But if Boston College is the conference's bellwether – and the Eagles again sit atop the league, at 6-1-1 and 10-4-2 overall – UNH's play this weekend bodes well for Umile's optimism.
But for a five-minute stretch Friday night, which doomed them to a 6-2 defeat, they matched up fairly evenly with one of the nation's premier teams. In fact, they may have even carried the play for the majority of the two games. So the players echoed their coach in saying it was hard to be discouraged by the weekend based solely on the result.
"That's definitely the consensus in the locker room," said Matt Willows, the junior winger who scored New Hampshire's lone goal Saturday. "Overall I think we had a great effort. I like the way our team looks. You don't want to go into break with two losses, but we're moving forward and we like the way we're going. I think we'll finish off the second half of the year very well."
UNH put more pucks on net than BC did in the opening period (12-8), though a night after squandering four chances with the man advantage the Wildcats failed to convert three more in the opening 20:14, and so it was the Eagles who seized the game's initial advantage.
The strike came with 3:53 left in the first period, when BC's top line showed that it doesn't need much of an opportunity to make use of its significant talent. It entered the zone with no discernible advantage, and its passes within weren't particularly crisp or clean, yet somehow they worked the rubber to the front of the cage, where Bill Arnold had enough control of his stick and his body to corral a bouncer at the top of the crease and tuck home a backhander while being knocked to the ice.
Despite that deficit the Wildcats still had to like the way they were playing, as they outshot the Eagles again in the second period, and had the game tied again for 10 minutes – though BC again found a way to get to intermission with the lead.
Willows had pulled UNH even with his sixth of the year, the winger ultimately being the beneficiary of an open side after he, Nick Sorkin and Kevin Goumas had spent their shift buzzing around Thatcher Demko (28 saves), but with 2:09 to play in the middle stanza the nation's ninth-ranked team got that back.
Again it was the Eagles' top trio that made the play, and again the chance was less about a defensive breakdown by the 'Cats than skilled players taking advantage of a slight opportunity. This time the puck squirted from a scrum near the Wildcat blue line to Hayes, who was alone along the right wing. He took a few quick strides toward Casey DeSmith, let the approaching defenseman act as a screen, then whipped to the far side a wicked wrister befitting of a first-round NHL draft pick.
The Eagles didn't do much after that, managing only three shots on net in the third period – but it was enough as the Wildcats were held to just seven, and couldn't cash in on a couple of decent chances. They had one more crack at the power play, but a unit led by ex-Wildcat goalie Mike Ayers (now a BC assistant coach) didn't crack, and so despite holding a 70-40 shots advantage for the weekend the Wildcats came away empty.
"Not just good goaltending, but exceptional goaltending," said BC coach Jerry York. "I thought we played a good solid game against a very, very good Wildcat team. They had the puck over the weekend an awful lot, made good plays, but goaltending was certainly the key to this weekend being two wins for Boston College."
But not enough -- even in denying 67 of their 70 shots -- to dispirit the 'Cats.
"Take away about five minutes of the second period (Friday) night and I think we had a pretty good weekend," said UNH captain Eric Knodel. "We definitely outplayed them in parts of both games. In the end it still hurts to lose these games, but at least we're playing well."