When the third period came to a close last spring and the UNH hockey team lost a thrilling three-game series to the Merrimack College Warriors, something hit me. No, it was not the mere fact the Wildcats were done for the season. No it was not the Warrior fan encounter after the game where “You like that!” spread over the airwaves during our broadcast during that series. Rather it was the satisfaction that I knew the Wildcats would get better moving forward.
The last few years have been tough for head coach Dick Umile. His team has not made the NCAA tournament since 2012 and if you’re wondering, I was not a student yet. The craving for the Wildcats to be nationally ranked once again is there, but expectations have fallen short. Last year the Wildcats went 11-20-6 overall with a bleak 4-12-6 in-conference record. Not the best of records that Umile, who is going into his 27th season, expected.
Inconsistent play is the underlying theme of 2015-16. From the 6-6 tie with Umass Amherst after blowing a five goal lead, to the heroic wins against Union and Providence College, the Wildcats kept messing with fans’ heads and hearts all over the Seacoast. Even with the stellar offense led by Andrew Poturalski and Tyler Kelleher, the ‘Cats were never able to clamp down on defense and win games. The 98 points combined from these two were not even enough. Gasp.
Yet, one thing I have learned and fans of all generations is that the love has never been lost with this hockey team. All good things come to an end they say. Well, I’d argue to say all bad things come to an end as well.
The 2016-17 season will have its moments of ups and downs, but you can certainly see the sun over the horizon. With seven highly-skilled and motivated freshmen getting ready to step onto the Whittemore Center ice, expect high drama and heads to turn. From highly anticipated Brendan van Riemsdyk to the likes of Joe Sacco and Justin Fregona, the coaching staff and players will be delighted to teach these young athletes the system and mold them into collegiate stars like Poturalski once was.
Van Riemsdyk, who is now the last brother of the talented family from Middletown, New Jersey to make his way to UNH, will find ice time right away. He spent most of his time playing for the Islanders Hockey Club of the USPHL and tallied 53 points in 49 games played. Talent is one thing with van Riemsdyk, but the will to win is another. He has both.
That is not all. Danny Tirone, as well as Adam Clark, are back in between the pipes, and when healthy, both goaltenders boasted strong stats and there could be a competitive goaltender battle to see who will get the call for the season opener.
I understand losing the likes of Poturalski hurts, but Kelleher returning is a celebration of its own. He ranked third in the nation last year with assists, plus his hard-work ethic is something that cannot be matched. He will lead the first line with the likes of a Jamie Hill and Shane Eiserman. Add Frankie Cefalu and Ara Nazarian back into the mix as returners and I can promise you this: the offensive numbers will be there.
Defense wins championships. This is something that I have always stood behind. The defense has hurt the Wildcats in the past few years, but captain Matias Cleland returning makes my head spin. Cleland brings the skill and intensity. He was second in Hockey East with goals as a defensemen and led the whole nation in blocked shots. I expect improvement overall.
The Wildcats will have their moments, but it will not be like last year. The schedule is in their favor. They will have 17 home games that include new opponents making the trip to Durham like Colorado State and Arizona State, plus back-to-back home games against Providence is always nice.
It will be a test. A test that both the players and coach Umile are willing to take. Look for them to pounce on teams early this year. The Hockey East Preseason Coaches Poll picked them to finish 10th out of 12 teams this season. I’m going to say they jump to six or seven and make an enjoyable run in the tournament. Hockey is back in Durham, so grab that fish and get ready to toss it.
@nonawnsense

Executive Editor