In the latter part of the 2011-12 season, New Hampshire coach Dick Umile developed an inkling that his 2012-13 team had the potential to be a strong one.
Then-freshman goaltender Casey DeSmith was blossoming into a top-flight player, the defensive corps was gaining valuable experience, and scoring was balanced.
And though the Wildcats’ season ended in the Hockey East quarterfinals as Boston University edged them in three games (two of which went to double overtime), there was much to be hopeful about.
On Thursday night, UNH took on No. 7 BU at the Whittemore Center in an attempt to sweep the three-game season series, but lost, 3-2. The Wildcats (11-2-2) went in as the top-ranked team in the nation, an honor they haven’t had since Jan. 29, 2007, where they were No. 1 for a week.
The loss ended UNH’s unbeaten streak at eight games (7-0-1).
DeSmith exited the contest with a 10-2-2 record, a 1.81 goals-against average, and .940 save percentage. He also has four shutouts, second in the nation.
“It’s exciting [to be No. 1], it’s an absolute honor,’’ said DeSmith. “Not many people get to play for a No. 1-ranked sports team. It’s just a real honor to be on the team.
“BC has been the No. 1 team for a really long time. It’s nice to unseat them even for a little bit.’’
UNH took 3 of a possible 4 points out West when it tied Colorado College and came from behind to beat Denver over Thanksgiving weekend. The Wildcats followed up with a two-game sweep against UMass-Lowell last weekend.
The trip out West, said DeSmith, “was a real momentum-booster for us. It allowed us to get 3 points out there and come back with confidence against UMass-Lowell.”
DeSmith said one reason for the success is the way the team plays defense, allowing just 1.10 goals per game in conference play.
“[The coaches] have really put together a defensive system that works for us, then everyone is buying into the system and what we’re trying to do, and obviously we have a lot of talented defensemen and the forwards are also buying into the system,” he said.
“I think it’s just a really great team effort defensively and that transitions to offense.’’
Personally, DeSmith wouldn’t say the puck is looking like a beach ball to him, but his confidence is at a high level.
“I’m seeing the puck very well,’’ he said. “I hope it continues, because it’s working. You obviously have to have confidence you can make the saves you need to make. But at the same time, I have so much confidence in my team.
“It’s not very often where I’ve had a team that is as good as this team and able to win as many games as this team has won. It’s just really special being able to go out there every game and know that we not only have a chance to win, but we have the talent to win every single game we play.
“It’s just a really special feeling. We definitely had confidence we had the talent to go places this year.’’
For Umile, it has been gratifying to see it all come together, but no one is satisfied.
“We’re happy where we’re at and, more importantly, we’re fighting for the top spot in Hockey East,’’ said Umile. “That’s what we’re focused on.’’
He was hopeful because of DeSmith’s development.
“I thought because of goaltending, and Casey played the second half last season and showed how good he could be, we competed pretty hard the second half and lost a lot of games by one goal,’’ said Umile. “We don’t give up many Grade-A chances.
“We have gotten some good offense off of playing solid defense. We have balanced scoring with good defense and that’s a good combination.’’
UNH wants to bring trophies back to its campus the same way Boston College and BU have over the last several years. DeSmith said they won’t settle for anything less.
“One of the things UNH is made fun of for is no hardware,’’ said DeSmith. “Myself and the guys are always trying to work a little bit harder so we can try to get rid of that.
“There is nothing we want more than to get some hardware. It’s one of those things you don’t like hearing so you want to get rid of it.’’
BC sophomore forward Alex Carpenter, daughter of former Bruins forward Bobby Carpenter, extended her scoring streak to 14 games (12 goals, 13 assists) in the Eagles’ 4-1 victory over UNH Wednesday. It was the final game for the BC women until after the holiday break. The Eagles ended the first semester riding a 12-game unbeaten streak (10-0-2) and a seven-game winning streak, which ties the longest in team history . . . BC men’s coach Jerry York will attempt to set the record for most Division 1 victories Friday night when the Eagles (11-2-0, 9-2-0 Hockey East) travel to Providence College (7-6-1, 5-4-0). York is tied with Ron Mason at 924 wins . . . Friars freshman goalie Jon Gillies is one of only two goalies to start every game this season. (The other is Vermont’s Brody Hoffman.) Gillies has allowed two goals or fewer in 11 of 14 starts. He has a GAA of 2.11 in league games.