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Great Expectations
by Allen Lessels '76

It was a bitter end to a most sweet season for the UNH men's hockey team. After going all the way to the NCAA national tournament, UNH lost to arch rival Maine, 7-2, in the semifinals.

It took coach Dick Umile less than 24 hours to put that into perspective for his players. "Oh, that's done," Umile said before his team headed back to Durham from St. Paul, Minn., where the national championships were held. "We told the team it hurts right now. We've set the standards very high. The goals are high. We were in the Frozen Four; it wasn't like we lost in a Thanksgiving tournament here. We had a great season."

And a great season it was. The Wildcats compiled a 30-7-3 record, only the second time a UNH team has reached the 30-win mark. They won the Hockey East regular season championship. They won their first Hockey East tournament championship ever with a rousing win over Maine at a packed Fleet Center in Boston.

There was more: The win over Cornell in the first round of the NCAA tournament; the leadership of Darren Haydar '02, one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award; the emergence of Colin Hemingway '03, who scored 33 goals and joined Haydar as an All American; the number one ranking much of the year.

All of that in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. The Wildcats made most people forget that they were picked to finish fourth in Hockey East in the pre-season poll. In the end, they fell just a win short of playing in the national championship game. "This team accomplished things no one has accomplished at UNH," Umile said. "It'll hurt, but it'll go away. And this will fuel everything. The experience everyone got (at the Frozen Four) will be good for next year's team."

Goaltender Michael Ayers, who struggled in the final game, is already looking forward to his junior season-the first regular season home games are Oct. 18 and 19 against Minnesota, the team that beat Maine in the finals-and has no doubt his coach is correct. "If anything, it's going to make me work harder this summer to hopefully get the team back to the Frozen Four," Ayers said. "This team made a lot of history and what happened against Maine does not take away from what we did all season long."

Yes, the standards have been raised. The expectations are soaring.

It had been 15 years since the Wildcats had reached the Frozen Four when they played Michigan in Boston in 1998. Now they have been one of the last four teams standing the last weekend of the season in three of the last five years. They knocked on the championship door and lost in the finals to Maine in 1999 in Anaheim, Calif. They knocked on the door again in 2002 and came up just short. They will knock again.

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