By GREG LAUDANI
UNH goalie Vilma Vaattovaara had her teammates’ backs on Friday night, delivering 20 saves to lift the Wildcats to a 2-0 win over Penn State.
The Nittany Lions peppered Vaattovaara with shots throughout the entire game. But it was the difficulty of a handful of her saves that stood out most to head coach Hilary Witt.
“I think we outshot them but she had a lot of point-blank shots, breakaways and five-on-threes she had to take care of,” Witt said.
Within the first two minutes of the game, the junior goaltender made two acrobatic saves to keep Penn State off the scoreboard. The first came on a breakaway chance by PSU’s Caitlin Reilly, who skated alone through UNH’s defensive zone toward the net. Reilly fired a shot from the slot, but Vattovaara stepped up to deny a goal.
The Wildcat goaltender came up big again a minute later. After a UNH giveaway in its own zone, PSU’s Laura Bowman had a prime scoring chance in front of Vaattovaara. The goalie came out of her net to stuff Bowman and keep the game scoreless.
“I felt really comfortable even though they did get some breakaways,” Vaattovaara said. “Getting to play a lot this season really helps and knowing that we don’t have to win the game in the first period.”
Nicoline Jensen, who scored the go-ahead goal at 10:26 of the second period, said she was thankful for Vaattovaara’s outstanding performance while the Wildcats were not at their best.
“We owe a lot to Vilma for being in that game,” Jensen said. “We all knew that we had to start skating because we can’t put everything on her. We have to do something ourselves.”
Penn State controlled the tempo during the first twenty minutes. The two teams were even in shots through the first, but the Nittany Lions created more scoring threats. UNH gave Penn State a 5-on-3 power play midway through the first after back-to-back tripping penalties.
Vaattovaara stymied Penn State, even during hectic moments when the Nittany Lions had two extra skaters and said she did not lose focus even when her team was struggling in the first period.
“I try not getting frustrated even if we are not scoring on a lot of shots,” Vaattovaara said. “That helps me just stay in the moment and stop the next shot.”
Witt praised her goalie’s performance following the win.
“I think Vilma was the key,” Witt said. “She played incredibly today. You always have to have your goalie in a 5-on-3, no matter what the other killers do.”
While crediting Vaattovaara, Witt also said she was proud of how her team’s penalty-kill unit was able to help shut down the Nittany Lions.
“I also felt the [penalty] killers that were out there did a good job of getting in lanes and using their sticks to really frustrate Penn State,” Witt said.
Stellar goaltending and strong penalty killing helped UNH reach its longest winning streak of the season at three straight. In terms of Vaattovaara’s thoughts on how to continue to deliver in net, she said the key is to not think at all.
“I try to not have anything going through my mind,” Vaattovaara said. “That’s when I play best.”