Editor's note: Brandon Lawrence contributed this story to NESN.com.
At the beginning of last year, the UNH men's hockey team looked up to its top line — a group of seasoned seniors — to lead way for the squad in the 2010-11 campaign. The defense was solid, with leaders like Blake Kessel and Matt Campanale, who each had multiple years of experience at the college level.
Left relatively untested, however, was the man between the pipes. It was perhaps the most discussed situation in the preseason and the summer before that. Then-junior Matt Di Girolamo was going to have his hands full in his first year as starting goaltender.
Di Girolamo had only seen action in a handful of games during his freshman and sophomore years because of former UNH goalie Brian Foster, who was the regular starter for two seasons and led the Wildcats to the playoffs twice. Then, as soon as Foster graduated, it was DiGi's turn. And in his first full season, he didn't disappoint.
Di Girolamo finished his junior year playing and starting in all 39 games, recording a 2.44 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage, winning 22 games. Now, as he enters his senior season with a full year of experience under his belt, Di Girolamo is geared up for a breakout campaign.
USCHO.com has Di Girolamo as the No. 1-ranked goaltender entering the 2011-12 season, above names like Boston University's Kieran Millan, both Connor Knapp and Cody Reichard of Miami (Ohio), and Merrimack's Joe Cannata, who had an extremely impressive run last season.
Despite this, Di Girolamo said that he feels even-keeled heading into his senior season.
"We lost three stud defensemen, especially with Kessel leaving, so we're back in the same boast as last year — a little unproven defensively," Di Girolamo said. "But I'm definitely excited for the year."
Di Girolamo said that he's under a bit more pressure with the young and relatively unproven defensemen in front of him, but that everyone's getting acclimated to the system and that the coaches have done a great job preparing them for the opportunity.
Instead of playing the role of student, as a team leader Di Girolamo will have to take on the role of teacher for not only the young defensemen, but also the young goaltenders sitting behind him, waiting patiently for their turn to step up in net. Other than fellow senior Tyler Scott, UNH employs sophomore Jeff Wyer (who right now is listed as the backup) and freshman Casey DeSmith. Unless something changes in the grand scheme of things, Wyer will be put in the same situation as Foster and Di Girolamo.
For this year, Di Girolamo said that his consistency is something that he needs to work on, and that will ultimately be crucial to his and the Wildcats' success.
"If you have a consistent goalie, your team is usually pretty successful," Di Girolamo said. "[Your teammates] expect every game from you. Basically I want to keep doing that, and keep it simple."
Head coach Dick Umile, who enters his 22nd year at the helm, hopes that his senior netminder will serve as the vocal leader for the defensive unit, and help the guys out who haven't seen game action yet.
The departures of Kessel, Campanale and senior Mike Beck left three holes in the six-man defensive corps to be filled. Brett Kostolansky, Damon Kipp and Connor Hardowa will fill three spots, and are the only returners who saw action last season. Sophomores Eric Knodel and Justin Agosta will likely fill two spots, leaving one more for open. Freshman Trevor van Riemsdyk looks to be that sixth man defensively.
"It's defense that is going to be our challenge, just because we've got some inexperience," Umile said. "Half of our group of defensemen have not played [at the collegiate level]. The good thing is that 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."
Kipp said that early on in the season there may be times when things don't go the defense's way, which is natural, but that Di Girolamo will be there to pick up the slack and help out.
The schedule alone for the Wildcats is difficult, who open up with three games in two weekends against Hockey East teams, and then travel to Minnesota for two games against St. Cloud State. Other out-of-conference games will include Union, Alabama-Huntsville, Harvard and Brown.
"I'm sure he's ready for that," Kipp said. "He loves a challenge."