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Hockey East could be deeper than ever

DURHAM, N.H. -- One of the basic goals the University of New Hampshire hockey team sets every season is getting home ice for the quarterfinal round of the Hockey East playoffs.

If the preseason coaches' poll is accurate, even that could be a struggle this year.

"It's getting harder and harder to get home ice," said UNH coach Dick Umile, whose club lost and tied top-ranked Miami (Ohio) over the weekend.

The Wildcats had home ice last year as the No. 3 seed, although it didn't do them much good. They were swept out of the playoffs in two games by No. 6 Boston College. UNH's streak of getting home ice could be in jeopardy. The Wildcats have earned home ice in the first round for 13 straight seasons.

UNH and Vermont tied for fourth in the preseason coaches' poll. Defending national champion Boston University was picked to repeat followed by UMass-Lowell and BC. BU logged 84 points with six first-place votes.

UMass-Lowell accumulated 79 points and BC had 76. Both received two first-place votes. UNH and Vermont were a distant fourth with 59 points apiece followed closely by Northeastern with 57. Massachusetts (47 points), Maine (32), Providence (24) and Merrimack (23) were picked to finish in the second division.

"I think the top bracket got deeper," Umile said. "For a long time it was a four-team top bracket. We were one of those teams. Now it's like six. And we know that the bottom has come up. That's how I see it."

BU, which has 14 NHL draft picks on its roster, is led by All-America candidate Nick Bonino (50 points last season) and Hockey East rookie of the year Kieran Millan in goal while UMass-Lowell returns a league-high 84 percent of its scoring from last season.

The Terriers were picked to repeat despite losing five of its top eight scorers, including Colin Wilson, who left early to turn pro. BU won a school record 36 games last season to go along with their fifth national championship.

The River Hawks return their top seven scorers from a club that reached the Hockey East final, including all-stars Maury Edwards and Kory Falite.

BC, which returns 59 percent of its offense from 2008-09, lost a lot of experience and junior goalie John Muse, who has carried a heavy workload his first two seasons, is coming off hip surgery. Of the 25 players on the Eagles' roster, 18 are freshmen and sophomores.

UNH returns three of its top four scorers and Vermont, which lost three of its top four scorers, is coming off its first appearance in the Frozen Four since 1997.

The Catamounts are the league's only team to return all their regular defensemen and goalies.

Northeastern returns five 20-point scorers and UMass returns 21 letterwinners and six of their top 10 scorers, including first-team all-star James Marcou. The Huskies biggest challenge might be finding a replacement for departed goaltender Brad Thiessen.

"That's what's happened to the league," Umile said. "It's gotten deeper in my opinion."

Maine returns six of its top eight scorers and Providence will try to bounce back from missing the Hockey East playoffs for the first time in league history. The Friars bring back seven of their top 10 scorers along with sophomore goalie Alex Beaudry.

Merrimack will attempt to make the Hockey East tournament for the first time since 2004 with 22 returning letterwinners. The Warriors, who had a national-high 14 one-goal losses last season, set a program low with a 2.58 goals-against average.

Although UNH believes it will score goals, it will be relatively inexperienced on defense with just one senior (Nick Krates). The Wildcats, off to an 0-2-1 start, will depend on senior goalie Brian Foster to cover up any mistakes in the early going.

UNH has a tough schedule this month with four games against national powers Miami and Wisconsin. A two-game series at Wisconsin at the end of October begins a stretch in which the Wildcats play nine of 12 games on the road.

New Hampshire opens its Hockey East schedule next weekend with contests against Northeastern (Friday) and Maine (Saturday) at the Whittemore Center. The Wildcats hope to capitalize on the momentum of a strong NCAA playoff performance that included a win over North Dakota and a loss to BU in the final of the Northeast Regional.

"We'll be all right, I hope," Umile said. "It's a challenge in October. I still like our team very much, we just have to get better every day."

-- Copyright (c) 2009, Foster's Daily Democrat, Dover, N.H./Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.