UNH takes its first steps out onto the ice against St. Francis Xavier Saturday which will kick off the start of another highly anticipated hockey season. With that in mind, here are some of the biggest questions facing the Wildcats heading into the 2010-11 season.
1. Will the Wildcats make it past regionals this year?
Always the big question. The past two years in the post-season have reminded the UNH faithful of the talent and excitement that can come from Durham, NH. However, the club couldn’t punch a ticket into the Frozen Four on either occassion. But if ever there was a year to advance, this year would stand a chance.
First, UNH has tons of experience, returning eight out of 10 top goal scorers to the lineup and five of six defensemen. They enter the season ranked eighth in the nation, and third in Hockey East. The deciding factor will be how healthy the team stays throughout the season, and the performance of the new starting goaltender, junior Matt DiGirolamo.
2. Who will take the place of Bobby Butler?
It’ll be hard to fill the void that Butler left in the Wildcat offense last year, there’s no doubt about it. That being said, senior captain Mike Sislo will be placed there in hopes of sparking the same time of production that Butler generated.
Sislo, who lit up the Whit his sophomore year, putting up 19 goals–which earned him the honor of leading scorer–and 12 assists. Last year, Sislo banked in 14 goals and 15 assists, and led the team with two shorthanded goals. With the added captain responsibility, and teaming up with the Thompson–Desimone line, UNH head coach Dick Umile is confident that Sislo will have a “Bobby Butler kind of year.”
3. How will DiGirolamo stack up?
It seems this gets brought up every two or three years. Two years ago, Brian Foster took the spotlight after replacing the well-loved goaltender Kevin Regan in net. Foster hadn’t had much playing time, but he came out and quickly (and calmly) fell into his role as starting netminder. This year with Foster out and DiGirolamo in, UNH can expect a different kind of play from this junior from Pennsylvania.
Though the team remains confident in the 5’9″, 165-pound goalie, they couldn’t help but smile when comparing the calm and collected 6’2 180-pound Foster, to the passionate and heated DiGirolamo.
“[DiGirolamo] never gives up on a play and tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve,” Sislo said. “And I think that helps him.”
4. Who will the sophomore superstar be this year?
Two years ago, it was the combination of sophomores Phil DeSimone, James van Riemsdyk and Sislo that hailed in the headlines. Last year, Stevie Moses, Mike Borisenok and Blake Kessel took front and center for the sophomore class, and this year it looks like the trend for sophomore superstars will continue.
Even at the end of last year, the then freshmen Dalton Speelman, Greg Burke and Brett Kostolansky made quite the impact on the team and have not had any reason to slump into this season. Kostolansky ended his season last year with an injury, and Burke and Speelman also spent some of the season with shoulder injuries. Without the injury baggage weighing them down, expect big things from these three again this year.
5. What are some expectations of Kessel?
They are the same as they have been the past three years. The minute junior Kessel stepped foot on the UNH campus, he has been expected to perform, and perform well. Even with the added responsibility and pressure, last year was a monumental year for Kessel, as he was named a semi-finalist for the Walter Brown Award as well as a Hobey Baker nominee. He also was second in the nation for defensive scoring and was the backbone for the UNH defense last year. With 10 goals and 28 assists, look for him to be a very important piece of the defensive–and offensive– game again.
6. Speaking of defense, how they looking?
Besides Kessel, UNH has a number of returning defensemen to the lineup. Senior assistant captain Matt Campanale will take up the reigns and provide leadership in front of DiGirolamo. Also returning to the defensive end are Damon Kipp and Mike Beck, both who are very experienced on the Wildcat ice.
Unlike in years past, the defense is looking solid for the Wildcats and the amount of veteran players takes a little pressure off DiGirolamo. But perhaps the most intriguing player we could see on defense is 6’6″ freshman Eric Knodel. More to come on him later.
7. Will the Thompson-DeSimone-Sislo line be just as effective?
We’ve seen DeSimone and Sislo paired up before. The difference is now Thompson instead of van Riemsdyk. However, I see these three will be a great line this year. They know each others styles, they are comfortable with each other and adding a new sense of urgency and responsibility to Sislo, he will perform this year. DeSimone, who handed out 28 helpers last season and put in 10 goals of his own has never had a problem with creating plays on the ice.
Thompson was second only to Butler last year in goals scored with 19 in the net and 20 assists. Add the numbers that Sislo has accumulated over the years and you have yourself another line that will leave teams pulling their hair out.
8. Where will UNH end up in Hockey East standings?
As of now, UNH is ranked third in Hockey East, behind first place Boston College and second place University of Maine.
Boston College is coming off a national championship high and has every reason to be confident in its season. John Muse will be coming back as a senior in net for them, and the Eagles roster is full of highly touted and talented players including Cam Atkinson, Brian Gibbons, Joe Whitney and Chris Kreider.
Maine also has come off an impressive run from last year, and has secured its reputation on the national scene once again. Though there are some positions left unclear, Maine has the talent of Gustav Nyquist that can’t go unnoticed. Also Joey Diamond and Tanner House returned to the ice and overall the Black Bears are ranked seventh in the nation.
That being said, underneath UNH, Merrimack is expected to finish higher than ever before in the rankings and Boston University is always a contender. Expect UNH to finish within the top four.
9. Who should we be looking at from the incoming class?
Well, it will be hard to miss Eric Knodel–literally. The incoming freshman who hails from West Chester, Pa. stands at 6’6″ (without skates) and weighs in at 225 lbs.
Knodel was drafted in the fifth round of the 2009 NHL draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs as the 128th overall pick and joins three other drafted players on the Wildcats. Last year with the Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL, Knodel picked up three goals and 17 assists. Also interesting to note, of the six incoming freshmen, there is only one (Kevin Goumas at 5‘10″) who is under the 6’1″ mark.
10. What’s one factor that has to change if UNH wants to get further into the post-season?
One thing that will have to change is UNH’s out-of-conference record.
Last year the Wildcats went a dismal 3-8-1 which almost hurt them going into the national tournament. This year UNH will be faced with the same challenge, going against some of the best schools very early in the schedule.
After Saturday’s exhibition game against St. Francis Xavier, UNH will head to Ohio to face the third ranked Miami Redhawks for the first two regular season games of the year. After that, they will travel back home to play host to No. 4 Michigan before finally facing off against Hockey East opponent Northeastern.
Though we saw UNH come back from a very disappointing first half of the season last year, if they can start off playing well, with the talent they have, there is no question that they could move on further into the playoffs.