Commentary

Notebook: UNH goes back to basics

Renewed focus on defensive discipline has paid off for Hockey East-leading Wildcats

Updated: January 25, 2010, 2:13 PM ET
By Brian MacPherson | Special to ESPNBoston.com

Dick Umile didn't make any dramatic strategic overhaul. The University of New Hampshire didn't go out and get itself a brand-new defensive unit after allowing 10 goals in a weekend trip to Wisconsin in late October.

The fix actually was relatively simple: The Wildcats renewed their focus on getting their bodies and their sticks in shooting and passing lanes, devoting significant practice time to three-on-three drills in front of the net that reward discipline and technique more than aggressiveness.

Even more important, Umile let his talented young defense endure the growing pains that come with playing in Hockey East.

[+] EnlargeKessel
Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMIBlake Kessel is part of a refocused Wildcats defense that hasn't allowed more than two goals in a Hockey East game since before Christmas.

It worked. A young defensive corps -- three of the Wildcats' top four defensemen on Saturday against Boston University were either freshmen or sophomores -- has evolved into the best in the conference. Blake Kessel (sophomore), Damon Kipp (sophomore) and Brett Kostolansky (freshman) anchor a defense that hasn't allowed more than two goals in a Hockey East game since before Christmas.

"Kostolansky obviously has a great stick, is a great player," forward Paul Thompson said after the Wildcats' 4-1 win over Boston University on Saturday. "Kessel is Kessel, just good all around. Everybody just started taking it serious after the first few weeks when we were kind of getting lit up by a few times. Our D-zone was kind of pathetic at points."

The D-zone isn't pathetic anymore -- and just in the nick of time, too.

As recently as last week, New Hampshire (12-7-4, 11-2-3 in Hockey East) was on the outside looking in when it came to NCAA tournament berths. The Wildcats last week ranked in a tie with Yale for 15th in U.S. College Hockey Online's PairWise Rankings, generally the best predictor for postseason seeding. No team in the Atlantic Hockey Association, however, ranked among the top 16. That means one less at-large bid available to a bubble team.

A pair of wins this weekend at Providence and at BU vaulted UNH into the top 10 of the PairWise rankings and served notice to the rest of Hockey East that the Wildcats are poised to run away with the regular-season conference title. They haven't lost a conference game since early November, and seven of their final 11 games will be against the bottom four teams in the league standings.

They've done it all thanks in large part to a complete turnaround at the defensive end from goaltender Brian Foster on out. Foster has done his share, stopping at least 92 percent of the shots he's faced in each of his past five games. He's facing fewer tough shots, though, because the Wildcats are playing better team defense in front of him.

It started with that rough weekend at Wisconsin, a weekend that gave Umile reason to shake up his lineup. Kostolansky somehow managed to break even on the plus-minus scale during a 6-1 loss on Oct. 31, the only UNH defenseman to do so, and he's played alongside Kessel on the Wildcats' top defensive pairing ever since.

"That was a big wake-up call for us, going down there and losing by that many goals in both games," Kostolansky said. "It made everyone think, 'Wow, we need to pick it up. We need to get everything going here.'''

In one impressive sequence early in Saturday's third period, Thompson missed the net with a shot on a 2-on-1 break -- and he then got back in time to break up a 2-on-1 chance at the other end, diving to knock the puck off the stick of BU's Chris Connolly before Connolly could test Foster.

"We're playing better man-to-man down low," Thompson said. "We're not getting beat as much one-on-one. We have great stick position, intercepting passes, getting pieces of passes and not letting them make the easy plays whereas before we were getting beat a little more one-on-one."

Extra work reaps rewards for UMass' Wellman

It was four or five years ago that University of Massachusetts forward Casey Wellman decided he wasn't getting enough work on his shot.

"My dad heard something about how [San Jose Sharks center] Patrick Marleau wasn't really a goal scorer until he started shooting thousands of pucks a day," Wellman said. "He and I decided that would probably be a good thing for me to do."

But since the Wellman family lives in Brentwood, Calif., ice time isn't easy to come by. Brad Wellman -- a veteran of eight seasons of major league baseball, incidentally -- had to improvise, coming up with a sheet of masonite from which his son could shoot those thousands of pucks a day. The two have spent plenty of time out back together since then: Brad passing, Casey shooting.

At first, the then-undersized Wellman was working mostly on trying to muster maximum power behind his shot. These days, though, his work is more refined -- and so, too, is his shot. His two goals against Vermont on Saturday boosted his Hockey East-leading total to 19 on the season, including 12 in conference games.

Wellman and James Marcou, whose 31 assists leads Hockey East by a wide margin, have the perennially underachieving Minutemen tied for second place in the conference and in position to host a first-round playoff series -- and to qualify for a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time in three seasons.

BU's three-man advantage

Down three goals and enjoying a two-man advantage early in the third period on Saturday, BU coach Jack Parker figured he'd push his luck a little bit. Parker pulled goaltender Grant Rollheiser during a stoppage of play to give his team a 6-on-3 advantage in the UNH zone.

Rollheiser watched from the bench for 47 seconds while the Terriers worked the puck around the perimeter and into the slot, creating three quality scoring chances but failing to cash in. Not once was the empty net threatened. Not once did a UNH player get anything close to possession of the puck during BU's three-man advantage.

"There's that extra guy to look for, so there's more to worry about," UNH defenseman Damon Kipp said. "We just tried to keep ourselves packed in and take away the passing lanes and the back doors."

As detailed in a U.S. College Hockey Online column in December, Parker first unveiled the strategy against Cornell at Madison Square Garden after Thanksgiving. Parker has never been one to shy away from playing with an empty net; he did, after all, pull his goaltender with close to three minutes left in last April's NCAA title game.

With UNH doing well to get in the Terriers' shooting lanes during previous power plays, Parker stationed playmaker Nick Bonino behind the net to quarterback the 6-on-3. Forward Vinny Saponari set a screen in front of Foster, and forward Alex Chiasson was the designated sniper between the faceoff circles.

"There's no sense doing 6-on-3 if you just get in an umbrella like you do 5-on-3, with the same people covering the same lanes," Parker told USCHO.com earlier this season.

The result: UNH had no choice but to pull all three of its defenders within reach of the net and allow the Terriers free rein around the perimeter. Quick passes set up three scoring chances in that 47-second span, including a bullet of a one-timer from Chiasson on a feed from the wing, of which Foster got enough of a glimpse to deflect wide of the goal.

After Foster saved and hung onto a shot by defenseman Colby Cohen from the middle of the faceoff circle, Rollheiser returned to his net for the duration of the power play.

Brian MacPherson is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. His email address is brianrmacpherson@gmail.com.

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