Vin Sylvia: Pressure's on Wildcats to fill a gaping hole
MANCHESTER -- Ten years ago Friday, the University of New Hampshire shut out Boston University, 3-0, in the final of the NCAA men's ice hockey Northeast Regional at Worcester, Mass., earning the Wildcats their second straight trip to the Frozen Four and fourth in six seasons. Twelve days after that, they were on the brink of bringing home UNH's first national championship, 3-2 winners over Cornell at Buffalo in the tournament semifinals.
It was a time of unmatched optimism for one of college hockey's best-established programs. UNH already had been awarded hosting rights for the 2004 Northeast Regional at Manchester's Verizon Wireless Arena, with the promise of additional hosting opportunities to follow. Now a national championship was within reach, and future Frozen Fours seemed a certainty.
The hosting opportunities came to fruition. This weekend marks the fifth Northeast Regional at the Verizon, and UNH has appeared in all of them.
And it has yet to win one.
Or, for that matter, any of the four other regionals in which it has appeared in the decade since Buffalo.
Minnesota buried the Wildcats in the 2003 title game, 5-1, and sometimes it seems like UNH never fully recovered. Beginning with that defeat, the 'Cats lost nine of their next 13 NCAA tournament games before Friday night's regional semifinal against Denver.
Saturday night, they get another chance, thanks to a 5-2 victory that sent the Pioneers back to the Rockies and the Wildcats into an all-Hockey East regional final against smokin' hot UMass Lowell.
UNH will face the regional's "other home team" at 6:30 p.m. for a berth in the Frozen Four at Pittsburgh April 11 and 13.
The River Hawks hammered Wisconsin, 6-1, in Friday's early semifinal for its sixth straight victory and 12th in 13 games. Seeded first in the region after winning their first Hockey East championship, the River Hawks are playing inspired hockey, and they have one of the nation's best goaltenders in Connor Hellebuyck. Located a little more than 30 miles from Manchester, UMass Lowell is sure to have plenty of fan support for the final, and the Hawks are going to be awfully tough to beat.
Between periods of the Lowell-Wisconsin blowout, Marty Scarano - UNH's director of athletics since 2000 and before that the AD at hockey-tradition-rich Colorado College - talked about the pride his school takes in the job it does of hosting the regional and acknowledged the pressure all of the Wildcats are under to finally win one of the damned things.
"There's pressure - sure, there's pressure. I feel pressure," Scarano said. "When we went into (hosting) this thing, I thought this was the best possible way to get us back to the Frozen Four. We haven't gotten there. The pressure's enormous."
Scarano may feel the pressure, but no one attracts it more than Dick Umile, at once the most successful and most criticized head coach in UNH history.
Umile entered the regional with a career record of 518-265-94 at UNH - a winning percentage of .644. In 23 seasons leading the 'Cats, he has taken them to the NCAA tournament 18 times, including 14 of the last 16. He has won six Hockey East Coach of the Year awards - more than Boston College's Jerry York, more than recently retired Boston University legend Jack Parker.
But York and Parker have won a combined eight national championships. Umile, for all the success he's had as head coach at his alma mater, is still seeking his first.
Scarano doesn't defend his coach - doesn't feel the need to - but just as he acknowledges the pressure to win a regional in Manchester, he admits the lack of a national championship leaves a gaping hole in UNH's hockey resume.
"I hear it from our fans," he said of Umile's critics. "I hear it a lot. It's become an annual rite of spring.
"But it's bigger than Dick," he said of the title drought. "UNH may be the last of the original great college hockey programs never to have won a national championship. I thought about that even when I was at Colorado College. I go to the Frozen Four, and every year they hang the banners of all the teams that have won a national championship, and it's bizarre not to see UNH up there.
"But the margin of error once you get to the tournament can be so miniscule. A bounce here, a break there can make all the difference."
Scarano cited 2009, when BU won three straight one-goal games to claim its last national title, including a last-minute victory over UNH in the Northeast Regional final at the Verizon and a miraculous overtime triumph over Miami (Ohio) in the Frozen Four championship, a game in which the Terriers scored twice after pulling their goalie to force OT.
There wasn't much margin for error on the 'Cats' part Friday night.
Leading 3-2 at the start of the third period, they had a chance to open that margin a bit when Denver's leading scorer, Nick Shore, received a five-minute major and game misconduct for a hit to the head of UNH's top scorer, Kevin Goumas, with 19 minutes 10 seconds to play. The 'Cats couldn't capitalize on the five-minute man-advantage, though, and it remained a one-goal game until Nick Sorkin fed John Henrion breaking down the right wing and Henrion beat Denver goalie Juho Olkinuora top shelf to make it 4-2 with 11:11 to play.
Austin Block had a chance to put the game away on a clean break with less than eight minutes remaining, but Olkinuora stoned him, and when Block responded with a hooking violation, Denver had a power play and a chance to cut the margin in half. A scrap around the net after a Denver shot clanged the post turned the Pioneers power play into a 5-on-3 advantage with less than five minutes to play, creating further unease among UNH's restless fandom.
The 'Cats killed the penalties, though, and when Casey Thrush scored his second goal of the night, and empty-netter with 2:20 to play, it was clear UNH would have its shot at finally winning a regional in its own state.
As for that elusive national championship? First things first. The route to Pittsburgh goes through Lowell.
Vin Sylvia is a New Hampshire Union Leader deputy managing editor. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @vinsylvia.