The 2011-12 UNH hockey season begins with the same question Wildcat fans have been asking for nearly a decade now: Is this finally the year?
The Wildcats' last trip to the Frozen Four came in 2003, when they lost to Minnesota in the national championship. Since then, UNH has reached eight consecutive NCAA tournaments and has been sent home empty-handed every time.
This year's seniors know the feeling well, after seeing their three college seasons end in nearly identical fashion – one game short of the Frozen Four.
After losing all three members of last year's top-scoring first line and three stalwart defensemen, this season will open with at least a few question marks at all positions but one: goaltender.
Senior goalie Matt Di Girolamo burst onto the scene last year as an untested junior replacing former All-American Brian Foster and in just one year has become arguably the best netminder in Hockey East.
Finishing second in the conference in goals against average (2.44) and first in save percentage (.923) as a junior, Di Girolamo comes into 2011 with lofty expectations.
He will need to continue to play to these expectations, as he will be backstopping a defensive unit that feature three players who have never skated in a collegiate game.
"It's defense that's going to be our challenge," UNH head coach Dick Umile said. "Just because we have some inexperience with defensemen who have not played. But Matt Di Girolamo will be in net and he's proven to be one of the top goalies in the country, and hopefully he can help us in that area until these guys get some experience."
First team Hockey East defenseman Blake Kessel's decision to forgo his senior year to join the NHL, as well as the graduation of seniors Matt Campanale and Mike Beck, has opened the door for a trio of youngsters to join the fray.
Two of these newcomers will be sophomores Eric Knodel and Justin Agosta. Both were members of last year's team, but saw action only in practice as neither saw the ice in an official game. However, both say that a year of practicing against some of the best forwards in the nation greatly improved their game.
"It was a rough year last year, but I had to go through it, had to put my time in," Knodel said. "Me and Justin grew a lot last year as hockey players, and we studied the game a lot and did our work."
Knodel will be one of the most recognizable figures on the ice this season simply because of his size. The sophomore stands 6-foot-6 (6' 9" on skates) and his teammates say his height is an excellent weapon in the defensive end.
"There has been times in practice where it's almost been frustrating," senior forward and co-captain Mike Borisenok said. "Because you think you've beaten him on a move, but yet he just pivots and he's able to catch you with his stick and his reach. He's definitely an asset to have in the defensive end."
Anchoring the blue line will be senior co-captain Damon Kipp and juniors Brett Kostolansky and Connor Hardowa. Kostolansky enjoyed a breakout year in 2010-11, playing alongside Kessel in the top defensive pairing – where he will likely remain this season.
Rounding out the defense will be freshman Trevor van Riemsdyk, brother of former UNH star (and current Philadelphia Flyer) James van Riemsdyk and the only freshman that Umile assured would see significant time this season.
On the offensive end the Wildcats will be tasked with replacing graduated seniors Paul Thompson, Mike Sislo and Phil DeSimone – who comprised one of the most devastating lines in the country and ranked 1-2-3 on the team in scoring last season.
This transition, however, comes with an air of confidence. Last year's second line of Borisenok, Stevie Moses and Kevin Goumas outplayed the top line on several occasions last year, and returns fully intact for the '11-'12 campaign.
"It's no different this year than it has been in the past," Moses said. "We lost Bobby [Bulter two years ago] and Paul and [Sislo] picked it up, and this year we're going to have a lot of guys who can put the puck in the net, for sure."