Commentary

New Hampshire claims Hockey East title, eyes two more championships

Originally Published: February 24, 2008
By David Albright | ESPN.com

DURHAM, N.H. -- On their way from the dressing room to the Whittemore Center ice, University of New Hampshire players walk down a long hallway past the Wall of Champions.

[+] EnlargeKevin Regan
AP Photo/Michael C. YorkKevin Regan is making a case for Hockey East player of the year accolades.

On their right are photos of past Wildcats squads that won conference and NCAA regional championships, and they serve as a reminder to current players of the history and heritage of the program since turning Division I.

The photos go back to UNH's days in the ECAC in the '70s, but there is a heavy dose from this decade, as the Wildcats captured titles in 2002, 2003 and 2007.

The first two photos from this latest run of success include lines for Hockey East regular-season and tournament championships and trips all the way to the Frozen Four.

By comparison, last year's accomplishment started and ended with a Hockey East regular-season title.

Until Saturday night, there was one spot left on the wall for the next UNH championship team.

No longer.

With an impressive 5-1 win over Boston College -- a 7-1 weekend, if you include Friday's shutout down in Chestnut Hill -- UNH (21-7-2) captured its second straight Hockey East regular-season championship with two full weekends to play.

The early clinching is due in part to what should be considered a down year in Hockey East. But the Wildcats do deserve full marks for their dominating play of late.

UNH is 8-0-1 in its past nine games and an even more impressive 12-0-1 in Hockey East play since mid-December.

Consider BC coach Jerry York duly impressed.

"New Hampshire has a terrific hockey team," York said. "Watching them in back-to-back games and clearly at this juncture of the season, they are a better team than we are. They really make good plays. They move the puck really, really well and have excellent team speed."

That was very evident against the Eagles in front of another 6,501 home sellout Saturday night, when UNH used precision passing, a potent power play (4-of-8) and a pressurized penalty kill (BC went 0-of-7) to dominate the game.

Leading the way were freshman left wing Danny Dries (2 goals) and his linemates right wing Matt Fornataro (1 goal, 2 assists) and center Mike Radja (2 assists). Not to be overshadowed was goaltender Kevin Regan (26 saves), who moved into second place on the all-time Hockey East wins list with his 49th career conference victory.

"Any time you can beat Boston College like we did this weekend, because they are a very good team, we played well," said the usually grim-faced UNH coach Dick Umile, who even managed a smile after this game. "The specialty situations were tremendous; penalty kill has been great, and our power play has been getting better.

"And Kevin made a couple of great saves. There's good stuff is going on. The team is playing well, they're playing with a lot of confidence, they're having fun and they're working hard."

Is that all?

[+] EnlargeDick Umile
AP Photo/Mary SchwalmUNH coach Dick Umile will work on keeping his team focused on the postseason.

As strong as the offense (3.5 goals a game) and power play have been of late, it might be the senior goaltender from South Boston who has been the most impressive player down the stretch.

Regan (19-5-1, 2.12 goals against average, .933 save percentage) has been in net for every game during UNH's current Hockey East unbeaten streak, and he has posted a 1.45 goals against average to go along with a .956 save percentage during that run.

"Their goaltender has really come into his own," York said. "He's been a good goalie during his career at New Hampshire, but this year, Regan has moved to a whole other level. He's clearly one of the players we have to think about when we think about player of the year in Hockey East.

"They might just have the player of the year with their goaltender, and that makes them that much stronger."

Up next on the schedule are four largely meaningless conference games, but the biggest opponent left might be the challenge of staying focused.

"It's nice," Fornataro said of winning the regular-season title, "but it's not the one that we want. We said before the game that we want to win three championships this year, and this was the only opportunity to get one at home. That's what we wanted to do, and we got it done.

"It's bigger now that we need to stay focused and not let up. We just want to keep going like we didn't win it."

With the regular-season title now in the rear-view mirror, the task at hand for UNH will be maintaining its current No. 2 PairWise ranking, which should lead to a No. 1 seed in the Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass.

Not only is the DCU Center the closest NCAA venue to the UNH campus, it also was the scene of the Wildcats' last stop en route to their last two Frozen Four trips.

That's still more than a month away, so for a day or two, there's still some room to celebrate the latest accomplishment.

"I'm really happy for the team. It's a great group -- especially the seniors -- but it's a great team with great chemistry," Umile said. "And they were just determined, and I'm trying to stay out of the way.

"The [regular-season] championship is done, it's over, and we have to continue to play good hockey and keep this going hopefully."

One championship down, two more still in play -- meaning the final list of accomplishments for the 2007-08 Wall of Champions team photo has yet to be written.

David Albright is the senior deputy editor for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at david.albright@espn3.com.