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More than one Kessel, Pavelski in the spotlight

by Bob Snow
Next Tuesday, the United States men's Olympic team begins its quest for gold when it tangles with Switzerland in round-robin play in Vancouver.

This Friday, the University of New Hampshire hosts Providence College, as the Wildcats continue their annual quest for the NCAA version of gold -- a first-ever national championship.

What links the 2010 Olympic team and one NCAA program?

Two names -- Pavelski and Kessel.

If the Yanks are to capture Olympic gold for the first time since 1980, young guns like the Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel and the Sharks' Joe Pavelski need to lead the way.

If UNH is to parade the NCAA's ultimate trophy around the Durham, N.H., campus come April, sophomore defenseman Blake Kessel, out of Verona, Wisc., needs to carry an even heavier load than his big brother -- especially on defense.

Two Frozen Four national appearances for UNH brought no hardware, only heartache -- an overtime loss to Maine in 1999 a solid thumping by Minnesota in 2003.

While freshman Scott Pavelski, from Plover, Wisc., still is in the orientation stage of Division I play, appearing in eight games so far, Kessel, a 2007 sixth-round pick of the New York Islanders, is among the best puck-rushing defensemen in the college ranks.

Both have progressed to this point, in large part, because of a big-brother influence.

"It's awesome to have him selected for the Olympic team," Pavelski said of his older brother, who won the 2006 national title with Wisconsin. "He always loves to play for his country.

"He teaches me the most important thing is to come to the rink and have fun. If you don't enjoy it, you won't do your best. It's still a game at any level -- you have to have fun."

"I'm so proud of him making the Olympic Team and everything he's come through, especially the first year and the cancer," Blake said of brother Phil, who played one year at Minnesota before turning pro with the Boston Bruins -- as well as beating testicular cancer as a rookie in 2006-07. "Just growing up and being so close in age, I just hope he plays the way he can in Toronto and the Olympics."

Phil thinks Blake is ready to take New Hampshire on a historic ride.

"I think he's having a great year so far," Phil said of Blake. "But you always need to improve on the year before. When you look at him he's great defensively and he's turning into a great offensive defenseman -- very smart. Blake makes great plays with the puck and moves the puck real well."

Last season, Blake was honing his skills with full-time duty alongside Flyers rookie James van Riemsdyk, who took many an outlet pass from Kessel, not to mention providing a dynamic duo on the Wildcats' power play.

"Blake's having a great year -- over a point a game for UNH -- and leading the way on defense," van Riemsdyk said. "Last year he was arguably our best defenseman, with Kevin Kapstad. So he's come a long way in a short time. He's really smart out there with good hockey sense and great skills. He's got a bright future ahead of him."

How far has the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Kessel progressed over two seasons? How about a plus-26 career with 13 points last season, and an eye-popping 30 points so far in 26 games, good for second in the nation among defensemen, first in Hockey East, and top 10 overall in arguably the best top-to-bottom league. 

Inching back to its customary top-10 national rank at No. 15 after a slow start, the Wildcats currently are atop Hockey East, with Boston College and Maine nipping at their skates.

Kessel is a major reason -- but not without a critique.

"He's pretty good in the transition game and when to get back up," 20-year Wildcats coach Dick Umile said, "but his one-on-one play needs attention. You start playing against the guys in the NHL and those battles in the corner, there are some big, strong boys there. But he can skate, that's for sure."

Brother Phil agrees.

"When we get together for one-on-one play," Phil said, "I'll check where his stick is and how he's moving, what he can do better and what he's doing good."

"Skating is the key and I think that improves every day," Blake said. "Close that gap between you and the best skaters you face and be the leader on the D-end. After last year, I need to step up, carry a bigger load, contribute on the offensive end. I like to do that. I have high expectations, but that's a good thing, to expect a lot out of yourself."

No shortage of those great expectations across the UNH bench.

"Most guys that have older brothers that play in the NHL or higher levels learn a lot from them," junior Phil DeSimone said. "I know Phil and Joe have helped Blake and Scott along the way. They made it and they set up the steps these guys need to take to get there, as well.

"Blake's obviously an offensive defenseman, but the biggest thing is he's working on his defensive game. He has a better sense of the game down low, and he's very good on the power play."

"I told him," said senior captain and leading scorer Bobby Butler, named semifinalist with Kessel last week for the prestigious Walter Brown Award as the best American-born player in New England, "'You're going to be the big stud this year, so we need you to lead the team. You're Blake Kessel, you're one of our leaders even if you don't have a (letter) on your shirt.' We need that out of him and he's been doing that this year."

"Our ultimate goal," said Kessel, "is get to the Frozen Four and win it all."

Not unlike the same goal for Olympians Phil and Joe in Vancouver the next two weeks.

2010 Hockey Humanitarian Award -- The 18 nominees for the 2010 BNY Mellon Wealth Management Hockey Humanitarian Award were announced last week. The award honors college hockey's finest citizen, someone who gives back to his or her community. The finalists will be announced later this month, and the recipient will be announced at the Frozen Four in Detroit on April 9. The nominees:  Bobby Butler, New Hampshire; Kevin Deeth, Notre Dame; Kirsten Dier, Amherst; Jon Globke, New England College; Barry Goers, Massachusetts-Lowell; Dion Knelsen, Alaska; Sam Kuzyk and Adria Shareef Labreche, Buffalo State; Zach Miller, Williams College; Mario Mjelleli, Augsburg; Brigid O'Gorman, Connecticut College; Jordan Pietrus, Brown; Garrett Raboin, St. Cloud State; Brett Watson, Massachusetts.

Sacred Heart sweeps -- Sacred Heart senior Nick Johnson was named January Player of the Month by the Hockey Commissioner's Association. His 11 goals, 20 points and plus-12 rating helped lead the Pioneers to an undefeated month (9-0-2). Johnson's freshman teammate, goaltender Steve Legatto, was named Rookie of the Month. Legatto was in net for all 11 games, posting a 2.06 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. The January output propelled the Fairfield, Conn. program to No. 3 in Atlantic Hockey under first-year head coach C.J. Marottolo.

On Campus Clips  -- Michigan's Red Berenson notched the 689th win of his career, 2-1, at Bowling Green on Feb. 4, tying him with Len Ceglarski (Clarkson, Boston College) for sixth on the NCAA Hockey all-time coaching wins list. … Key games this weekend include RIT at Army, Maine at BU, North Dakota at St. Cloud, and Yale at Cornell.

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