Phil DeSimone turned 24 last Saturday. He wasn't in a celebratory mood.
See, DeSimone had been anticipating playing in a big hockey game on his birthday along with the rest of his University of New Hampshire teammates in Boston. However, the Wildcats' quest for the Hockey East Association postseason championship at TD Garden ended one-game shy of its destination a night earlier when UNH dropped a 4-1 decision to Merrimack in the semifinals.
"It was kind of a bittersweet weekend," said DeSimone, a senior center and Washington Capitals prospect. "We really wanted to win the Hockey East playoffs."
While that championship dream is dead, the East Amherst native has one shot left at a title that would ease the pain of last week's stinging defeat and perfectly cap his collegiate career. DeSimone and the Wildcats begin the elusive quest for a national championship Saturday when they face 2010 national semifinalist Miami (Ohio) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Manchester, N.H. (4 p.m., ESPNU).
UNH is a No. 4 seed in the four-team Northeast Regional and the 13th seed overall in the 16-team tournament. The Miami Red Hawks are one of four No. 1 seeds. The regional final is Sunday with the winner advancing to the Frozen Four on April 7. The other teams in UNH's region are Notre Dame and Merrimack.
"It's definitely the best time of the year," said DeSimone, UNH's third-leading scorer with 40 points. "We always look forward to playing in the tournament. Every year we've been fortunate to make it. Now it's just a matter of going a little bit farther than we have the last few years. We all look forward to it."
This is UNH's 10th straight NCAA Tournament appearance, a streak that ranks second to Michigan's 21 straight trips to the "Big Dance." The Wildcats haven't reached the Frozen Four since losing to Thomas Vanek and the Minnesota Golden Gophers at HSBC Arena in 2003. UNH, which has appeared in 21 tournaments overall, is 13-22 all time in the NCAAs and never has won a national championship.
While it may seem New Hampshire is a decisive underdog heading into this year's tournament, it should be noted that four No. 4 seeds (Notre Dame in 2008; Bemidji State and Miami in '09 and RIT in '10) have made the national semifinals the last three seasons.
RIT earned the Atlantic Hockey Association its first Frozen Four appearance by shocking DeSimone and his teammates in last year's East Regional final in Albany. DeSimone tied that game, 1-1, late in the first period and UNH had a chance to surge ahead but hit a goal post just before the Tigers buried the Wildcats with a three-goal blitz in a span of 1:34 midway through the second period and won, 6-2.
"In the tournament it's just a matter of getting bounces and being in the right place at the right time," he said. "You have to win two games to get to the Frozen Four. A lot of it has to do with how hard you play and how you execute your systems but part of it has to do with puck luck. We haven't gotten a lot of that the last couple years but hopefully that changes [this year]."
A national title would be a nice finishing touch on a collegiate career in which DeSimone has taken pleasure in setting up his linemates for success. He has 10 goals and 30 assists this year and is the first Wildcat since 2006 to compile at least 70 assists in his career. DeSimone has centered the last two Hockey East Players of the Year in Paul Thompson and current Ottawa Senator prospect Bobby Butler.
DeSimone (30 goals, 78 assists, 108 points) became the 70th Wildcat to hit the 100 career-points mark and third this year, joining Thompson (57 goals, 112 points) and linemate Mike Sislo (49 goals, 114 points). Thompson has 28 goals and 52 points this season, while Sislo has 13-46.
While DeSimone has been told repeatedly to shoot more, part of being an elite center in college hockey is having the ability to make everyone else around you look good. It's a skill in which DeSimone, a former United States Hockey League Player of the Year with Sioux City in 2006-07, excels.
"They would not have had the goal production they've had without him as their centerman," UNH coach Dick Umile said. "He's a very good stickhandler and playmaker. He's capable of scoring goals but he helps make other players better. He's a very clever centerman.
"It is a quality that makes good centermen. He can do it by himself yet he makes other players better. That's what you want in a player."
What DeSimone wants is the same thing everyone in frustrated Wildcat nation wants -- a national championship. For all its tournament appearances, New Hampshire could be the best hockey powerhouse to never win a national championship.
The-best-to-never label is one UNH would love to shed this year. If that happens, DeSimone just might be in the mood to get the party started.
"We [the seniors] all know it's our last chance," he said. "We're just trying to make the most of it. We just want to play hard, play our game and see what happens."