By Justin Loring, Sports Editor
PROVIDENCE — Back in January, most people would have scoffed at the notion of the UNH Wildcats advancing to the Hockey East semifinal in Boston. With a record of just 10-17-2, UNH was staring up at the rest of the league from the bottom of the standings.
But the Wildcats turned it around in Feb. 14 with a 4-3 win over No. 1 Boston University, and have been rolling ever since. The team has won 10 of its last 12 games and are headed to Boston for a rematch with the Terriers in the Hockey East semifinal thanks to a 2-1 overtime win against Providence in the quarterfinal round on Sunday night.
“It was unbelievable, the game was fabulous and it was a great series,” said UNH head coach Dick Umile. “I’m absolutely thrilled that this team is going to continue to play hockey because they absolutely deserve it and they’ve developed into a solid team.”
All season long, the Friars and Wildcats had played each other tightly. The regular season series was a split, with UNH losing the first game 2-1 but winning the next one 1-0. Game 1 of the playoff series was a 2-1 overtime victory which saw Grayson Downing score the game winner for the ‘Cats, then Game 2 was decided 2-1 in regulation for Providence, with all the scoring occurring in the second period.
Game 3 of the quarterfinals lived up to the hype and it was Jay Camper’s deflection off a Brett Pesce shot from the point that caused the puck to bounce over PC goaltender Jon Gillies’ pad for the game winner in overtime with 7:17 left on the clock.
“I saw I had a little [shooting] lane and I took it, trying to get it through and luckily it hit off Jay,” Pesce said. “This series, it’s been such a battle between us [teams], low scoring and physical. We knew it wouldn’t be a pretty goal, so we got to the net front and bury it home any way we can.”
UNH goaltender Danny Tirone made 30 saves on the night, pushing his weekend total to 105 in the series. He allowed four goals during the entire three-game stretch.
Downing got the scoring started for the Wildcats with his 21st goal of the year at 7:06 of the first period. Downing, situated inside the left faceoff circle, ripped a slap shot that came off a pass from the corner by Shane Eiserman and beat Gillies low, giving UNH its first lead in regulation during the quarterfinal round.
The second period passed with physical play but no scoring, as the two teams battled up and down the ice to try and generate scoring chances. That chance finally came just a minute into the third period as Nick Saracino was able to tie the game at 1-1. The Friars took a shot on Tirone, who made the initial stop, but UNH was unable to clear the puck. As a scrum ensued, Saracino found room and the puck, flipping it over a prone Tirone and into the net at the 1:20 mark.
Both teams squandered big power play opportunities in the overtime, with UNH getting one on a boarding penalty just 1:09 in the extra frame when Josh Monk buried Andrew Poturalski in the corner. The Friars killed off the chance and then got an extra-man opportunity of their own, only this time it was UNH who came up with the stop.
“When you go on a special teams play, you have a chance to develop momentum for your squad,” Pesce said. “When you see guys laying down, blocking shots and sacrificing their bodies for the team it gives us a confidence boost and that much more energy going down the stretch in a 5-on-5 when its over.”
UNH had two looks at ending the game earlier in the overtime, the first one a two-on-one with Casey Thrush and Jay Camper. Thrush looked to shoot the whole way and Gillies made the initial stop but gave up a rebound to his right. Thrush just couldn’t corral the puck in time and shot it off the side of the net. The second came three-on-two with Downing, Pesce and Matt Willows, with Downing laying the puck off to Pesce at the point. Pesce ripped a shot that hit Gillies pad and kicked out to an open Willows, but his backhand attempt again went wide and hit the side of the net.
Following Camper’s game-winner, Umile noted the importance of having a senior class that has had experience playing in the TD Garden.
“There’s no substitute for the experience of going to the Boston Garden and playing in the Hockey East championship [back in 2013].”
The Wildcats will face off with the top seed in Hockey East, Boston University. The teams split the season series with BU winning 6-3 on Feb 13, but UNH rebounding with a 4-3 win at home the next night.
Men's Hockey: Boston Calling: Wildcats advance to Hockey East semifinal
By Justin Loring, Sports Editor