By Justin Loring, Sports Editor
BOSTON — After holding the nation’s longest winning streak, overcoming insurmountable late-season odds and a grueling three-game series which saw each game decided by one point, the UNH men’s hockey season finally came to a bitter end on Friday night. The Wildcats ran into a red-hot Boston university team who took down the Wildcats by a score of 4-1. The game played much closer than the score indicated, with UNH trailing by one heading into the final frame and the game-winner being scored with under seven minutes to play. Netminder Danny Tirone recorded 27 saves on the night, including a few that stopped what appeared to be sure goals for the Terriers. This marks the second consecutive year the ‘Cats made it to the TD Garden for the semifinals, a feat they hadn’t accomplished since 2007-08.
“I was proud of the way the team played tonight,” head coach Dick Umile said. “I congratulated [the seniors] on a great run in the second half [of the season] and bringing us to this point…the score obviously wasn’t indicative of the game and we had our chances.”
Special teams were crucial during the Hockey East tournament, as the Wildcats went 4 for 24 on powerplay opportunities during the playoffs, but three of those came in their first game against UConn. Since that game, the ‘Cats went just 1 for 20 (5 percent) for the rest of the tournament. On the other end of the spectrum, UNH killed its penalties at a rate of 90.5 percent (19 for 21), with the only two goals allowed in Game 2 of the quarterfinal round against Providence, which ultimately decided the game.
The Wildcats appeared to have the better scoring chances in the first period, starting with Matt Willows trying to feed an open Thrush with a between-the-legs pass, but it was knocked aside by BU’s Nick Roberto. Willows responded with another scoring chance of his own, ringing a shot off the crossbar about five minutes later on a shot coming from the left faceoff circle. BU’s best scoring chance came when A.J. Greer intercepted a mishandled puck by John Furgele and went on a breakaway, but Tirone stood tall in net for the Wildcats and knocked the shot into the corner.
Tyler Kelleher got the Wildcats on the board first with 5:26 to go in the first period. Kelleher pressured Brandon Hickey in the BU zone, who threw an errant pass off the skate of Kelleher’s linemate Andrew Poturalski. The puck bounced right to Kelleher, who was wide open between the faceoff circles. His off-speed shot seemed to surprise netminder Matt O’Connor as it hit the inside of O’Connor’s leg rolled into the net, giving the ‘Cats their only lead of the game.
BU responded three minutes later when Cason Hohmann took advantage of an out-of-position Tirone. Ryan Randall was called for a boarding penalty, and on the delayed penalty BU cycled the puck back to the point. Matt Grzelcyk fired a slap pass to Hohmann who was posting up along the goal line and beat Tirone’s glove to the far-right corner. Tirone redeemed himself with about 30 seconds left in the period when Robbie Baillargeon fed a cross-crease pass to Matt Lane right on the doorstep, but Tirone made a highlight-reel pad save that kept the game tied and landed himself the number eight spot on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays.
“I think the team felt great after the first period. [We had] a lot of confidence, we had our [scoring] opportunities,” Umile said. “We’ve been playing that way for a long time now, and [BU is] one of the top teams in the country, so [the team] felt good about scoring [early].”
The eventual game-winner came off the stick of Chase Phelps on just his second goal of the season with about 10 minutes to play in the second period. BU’s Mike Moran and Roberto both possessed the puck behind the UNH net and it was Roberto who had the initial attempt on Tirone. He made the save, but the rebound came out to Phelps, who was untouched on top of the crease, and he put a backhand shot over the right shoulder of Tirone and gave BU its first lead of the game, 2-1.
The period ended with the ‘Cats trailing and they never got back onto the scoreboard. The eventual dagger came off the stick of phenom Jack Eichel, who buried a rebound shot. Evan Rodrigues was left wide open in front of the net and was fed a pass, but his shot appeared to deflect off Tirone toward the right post. Eichel gathered and tucked it home on an open net for his third goal of the tournament. Eichel would finish the tournament with 11 points (6g, 5a), being named Tournament MVP in the process. He also set the BU freshman record for points in a season with 66 (24g, 42a) and BU record for points in a single tournament with 11 (set by Chris Drury and Jay Pandolfo in 1996). Eichel added an empty-net goal with 2:29 left, as Umile had pulled Tirone following a timeout with three minutes remaining.
“New Hampshire is as good a team as we’ve played,” BU head coach David Quinn said. “From the drop of the puck, I thought our goalie stood tall and I thought [UNH] could’ve had three goals in the first ten minutes.”
BU continued its streak by defeating UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East championship on Saturday by a score of 5-3. They became the first team since Lowell in 2012-13 to win both the Hockey East regular season crown and tournament championship. They finish the season ranked No. 3 in the nation and are a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Northeast regional to be played on March 27 at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.
The Wildcats finish the season with a record of 19-19-2, however at one point in January were sitting just one point out of last place with a record of 10-17-2. They finished winning nine of their last eleven games, including an NCAA-high eight straight between February 14 and March 13. The team will graduate five seniors: captain Willows, alternates Casey Thrush and Grayson Downing, Jay Camper and Ryan Randall. Downing finished second on the team in points with 38 (21g, 15a), Willows third with 35 (19g, 16a) and Thrush fifth with 25 (6g, 19a).
“It wasn’t an easy situation we went through [at the beginning of the year],” Umile said. “We didn’t win too many games in the first half, if things were different I’m sure we would have won a few more games, but as things are in this league, three more wins is a big difference. Maybe we’d still be playing in the NCAA tournament [with three more wins].”
The future looks bright for the Wildcats, who were one of the youngest teams in the nation. BU was the youngest, with 10 freshmen, seven sophomores and juniors and only two seniors. The Wildcats have 11 freshmen, four sophomores and eight juniors. Sophomore Tyler Kelleher led the team in scoring this season with 41 points (17g, 24a) and the team will not be graduating any defensemen.