By Justin Loring, Sports Editor
The first game of the year will show every team which facet of the game it needs to work on. For UNH, that would be capitalizing on offensive scoring opportunities. The Wildcats lost to St. Francis Xavier University by a score of 2-0 on Saturday night in the team’s first and only exhibition match of the season.
“I was a little disappointed with our attempts to the net,” head coach Dick Umile said. “We probably tried to take the puck a little too far in the offensive zone instead of getting shots to the net.”
UNH started the game well enough, garnering almost 30 offensive chances in the game. Managing to put 12 shots on net in the first period, the Wildcats tested St. Francis-Xavier netminder Drew Owsley early and often. Owsley made a number of key saves, including a phenomenal glove save on Maxim Gaudreault in the period. Gaudreault put a backhand shot on what looked like an open net, but Owsley got across the crease and slammed the door shut.
The biggest storyline heading into the game for the Wildcats would be who will step in net and fill the void left by Casey DeSmith. Adam Clark started the game for the Wildcats, recording 10 saves on the day, including seven in the first period.
“We were pleased with Adam [Clark]. We thought he stood tall in there and did a good job,” Umile said. “There were some positives, even though we lost … [Our] penalty kill, for not putting a whole lot of time in [during practice], I thought the guys did a pretty good job.”
After a scoreless first period, the X-Men finally broke the scoreless tie early in the second period. Michael Kirkpatrick received a pass in front of the net from Nathan Chiarlitt and hesitated, allowing Clark to overcommit on the save. Kirkpatrick put the puck five-hole on Clark for the game’s first tally.
“Michael is one of the most skilled players in our league,” St. Francis Xavier head coach Brad Peddle said. “He’s won a Memorial Cup [Canadian Hockey League championship] with the St. John’s Sea Dogs … we’ve always known what Michael can do in terms of offense and he’s certainly the catalyst for our offense.”
The Wildcats appeared frustrated with their play in the first two periods, having twice as many shots as the opponent (22-11 advantage), but still lacking in scoring chances and trailing 1-0. The frustration was embodied when captain Matt Willows drew back-to-back penalties (Hooking and Tripping) on one play, followed by him jawing with an opposing skater on his way to the penalty box. Willows was asked after the game if this was a new found attitude for the team, but he was reluctant to confirm the idea.
“We just wanted to get some energy tonight,” Willows said. “We came out a little flat [in the first period] and we gotta play physical to get the boys going.”
The third period was more of the same, with the X-Men scoring a goal just 1:39 into the period. After a UNH barrage which saw another excellent glove save by Owsley, St. Francis-Xavier responded with a deflection goal off the stick of Steven Kuhn.
UNH had a number of powerplay opportunities in the third period, but were unable to capitalize on them. Defenseman Harry Quast was given a game misconduct at 12:33 in the third for hitting from behind, but the X-Men drew two penalties during their man advantage to give UNH a 4-on-3 powerplay.
The best chance for the Wildcats came with under 5 minutes left when Willows hit the post on a shot coming from point-blank range. In the team’s first powerplay they mustered three shots on net. In their final four extra man opportunities, they were unable to get a single shot through traffic, finishing 0-5 on the night.
“We gotta get the rust out, it’s the first game of the season,” Willows said. “We gotta bear down in front [of the net], we had plenty of opportunities to tie the game, we just didn’t put the puck in the back of the net.”
Umile played every player on his roster, including 10 freshmen. The team played one extra line of forwards and an extra defensive pairing, as well as substituting in Collin Bourque among each of the lines.
“They all played well, I think as a whole they’re a really good class,” Willows said. “It’s a tough adjustment going from Juniors to coming out and playing college hockey … it’s their first game, I thought they all looked pretty good.”
Umile was asked after the game if he thought anyone stood out in particular, but simply responded, “I wouldn’t say one over the other but I was comfortable with those four [freshmen defensemen]. They were out there and did a good job for us.”
UNH will now head to Schenectady, N.Y. to take on the defending national champion Union College. The Dutchmen defeated three Hockey East schools in the tournament (Vermont, Providence and Boston College) en route to the title game, where they outclassed No. 1 seed Minnesota for a 7-4 victory. Union enters the weekend ranked at No. 5 in the nation (receiving nine first-place votes), while UNH sits just inside the USCHO.com rankings at No. 19
“[We need to] just get better,” Umile said. “Generate second and third shots to the net, I know how they play. They play very much like Lowell, they’re going to take away the front of the net and block a lot of shots, and we gotta find a way to get to the crease area.
“We’ll work on improving defensively and I can’t totally tell, but I don’t think we gave up a whole lot of great scoring opportunities tonight.”