If you look at New Hampshire’s start on paper, the 1-5-1 record in the opening seven games doesn’t look good.
But when you take into account the highly-ranked opponents the Wildcats faced — Minnesota, Michigan, Rensselaer, and UMass-Lowell — it was a baptism by fire for the new players and early non-conference adversity for the veterans.
“Obviously the teams that we played were outside of our conference,’’ said UNH coach Dick Umile. “For that matter, even our two [conference] games with Lowell were real good weekends, good hockey and we had opportunities to win but didn’t. The team has stayed with it and we finally got some scoring going.’’
Since a 3-2 overtime loss to the River Hawks on Nov. 2, the Wildcats have won three straight and outscored opponents by a whopping 17-3 margin.
“Right now we’re feeling a little bit better about ourselves,’’ said Umile.
One of those victories was a 9-0 rout of Massachusetts at the Mullins Center, which is a notoriously tough rink to play in.
“In fairness to UMass, their starting goaltender [Steve Mastalerz] got hurt Friday night [against UNH in Durham],’’ said Umile. “They had to use the backup goalie [Alex Wakaluk ]. Not being critical of him, he didn’t have his best night and I think we took advantage of that. And we played well on top of it all. Guys who needed to score scored goals.’’
In the early going, the Wildcats got their offense from the back line. Recently, however, the forwards have kicked their games into gear.
“It was good to see for our forwards, the puck is starting to go in for them,’’ said Umile.
Junior goaltender Casey DeSmith has picked up right where he left off last year. Heading into this weekend’s home and home series against 18th-ranked Northeastern, DeSmith is 2-4-0, with a 2.30 goals-against average and .914 save percentage.
“Casey is back playing well and Jeff [Wyer] stepped in [against Brown in a 4-2 win Tuesday],’’ said Umile.
Umile said the breakdown of the new schedule has proven to be a challenge for many teams.
“We’re playing 16 nonleague games just because of the Icebreaker [Tournament to start the year], we had two extra games,’’ said Umile. “It’s a little bit tougher knowing the parity of the league and only playing [each Hockey East opponent] twice. For example, we played Lowell last weekend and we’re done with them. And this weekend [we’re done] with Northeastern. Only playing twice makes it a big difference. Playing 20 games, it’s not a lot of games to separate a lot of good teams.’’
Despite the early losses, Umile believes his team will benefit from playing such high-level talent as the season moves along.
“There is no doubt that when you play teams like that, you get better,’’ said Umile. “We play in Hockey East and with that nonleague schedule, you’re going to become a better team and at the end of the day, that’s what we want to be and hopefully it will pay some dividends. We’ve got a ways to go for the rest of the first half but we’re playing with some confidence and in certain areas of the game we’ve gotten better. We’re going to need to do that especially going into [the league schedule].’’
One of the reasons Northeastern (6-3-0) has been surprising this season is because of the emergence of freshman forward Mike Szmatula , who had a terrific outing (goal, assist) in a 4-2 win at Lowell on Saturday night. Szmatula leads the team with 15 points (4 goals, 11 assists) and has at least a point in each game. In five of the nine games, Szmatula had at least two points. The native of Commerce, Mich., who played for Dubuque of the USHL last season, said he feels comfortable playing in Hockey East.
“It’s definitely everything I expected,’’ said Szmatula. “It’s one of the best, if not the best, conferences in the nation. Every night is a battle, you have to be ready to go and it’s a must-win. [Beating Lowell] was a big two points for our team.’’
Szmatula is second among Hockey East players in scoring. Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau leads the way with 18 points, nine of them goals. There is a four-way tie for third with 14 points — NU’s Kevin Roy, Providence’s Ross Mauermann, and BC’s Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold .
Proving them wrong
So much for predictions. Last weekend’s 2-1 victory at Harvard boosted No. 11 Clarkson’s record to 9-2-1 with a two-game home stand on tap this weekend against Cornell and Colgate. The Golden Knights were picked to finish last in the ECAC . . . UConn’s power play is off to a torrid start at home. The Huskies have the top man advantage with a 36.4 success rate (4 for 11) and are 3-0-1 in Storrs heading into their game against Bentley on Friday . Four teams have yet to surrender a power-play goal at home — Alaska Anchorage, Holy Cross, St. Cloud State, and Vermont . . . Best of luck to Tom Wilkins, who will wrap up his duties as New Hampshire’s associate athletic director for communications this weekend. Wilkins has taken a job as an associate athletic director at Southern New Hampshire. “There is more opportunity for him in that area outside of just being in sports info and media,’’ said Umile. “We’re going to miss him. He’s done an awful lot for us. He’s well respected around here.’’Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Elle1027.