Wildcats sweep No. 20 Boston College for first time since 2009

Joshua Shaw, Sports Writer

CHESTNUT HILL, MASS. — It was a classic case of strength versus strength as the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Wildcats (11-10-1, 5-7-1) played the No. 20 Boston College (BC) Eagles (10-8-3, 5-6-2) for a two-game set.

The Wildcats 18th ranked defense was pitted against the Eagles 10th ranked offense and senior forward Marc McLaughlin whose 14 goals were fifth-best in the NCAA heading into the weekend. Yet in end, it was the Wildcats defense and defenseman that led to the series sweep.

Friday night’s opener, however, brought with it foreboding overtones as senior defenseman and team co-captain Ryan Verrier was penalized two and a half minutes into the second period for tripping.

Verrier’s penalty proved fatal as the Eagles promptly answered. McLaughlin added his 15th goal of the season by being in the right place at the right time. Following a one-timer from junior defender Drew Helleson, the puck ricocheted around the crease before McLaughlin tucked it in to score.

The Wildcats’ defense ominous second period start escalated after sophomore defender Nikolai Jenson headed to the sin bin six minutes later. Jenson’s penalty pitted the Eagles 13th ranked power play against the Wildcats 10th ranked penalty kill yet again. This time, the latter came away with the win and kept the deficit to just one.

Jenson had atonement on his mind seven minutes later as he corralled the puck in the bottom right of the Eagles defensive zone. Harmlessly, Jenson flicked the puck on the net. BC’s sophomore goalie Henry Wilder placed his stick onto the ice to block the shot; before he could get the chance, the puck found twine. Jenson found forgiveness in the embrace of his teammates.

The offensive output from the Wildcats’ defensemen rolled into the third. First-year defender Colton Huard cradled the puck at the top of the blue line, shook a defender out, and found a clean sheet of ice in front of him. The reigning Hockey East Defender of the Week moved to his forehand, pulled it, and shot the puck. Once more, routine eluded Wilder. The goalie could only hang his head in defeat while further up the ice, Huard lifted his arms out to the crowd.

Huard credits his sudden emergence as a threat to assistant coach Jeff Giuliano and the time they’ve spent both on and off the ice, “He’s teaching me a lot and has given me the confidence to jump up in the rush and make some plays.”

With a two-goal lead in hand, the Wildcats resorted to the defensive style of play they have mastered all season. On Friday night, that style took a different form with a season-high 17 shots blocked.

“They had us on our heels certainly in the first period,” said UNH head coach Mike Souza. “But you know what, if you’re going to be in there, you’re going to make sure that you defend inside the dots. If that means blocking shots that’s the price you have to pay to defend your net and I thought we did a nice job of that tonight.”

Whenever the Wildcats’ defense fell short, Robinson stood tall. The goalie made nine third-period saves, using his pads to either ensnare the puck between them or send the puck bouncing away from the net.

“We got solid goaltending again tonight. Michael [Robinson] all we ask is he gives us an opportunity to win,” Souza said. “I thought he did that tonight.”

Senior defenseman and team captain Will MacKinnon capped the offensive night for the blue-liners with an empty-netter with 1:47 remaining. While McLaughlin notched another goal with 18.3 seconds to go, it was too little, too late for the Eagles. Friday belonged to UNH.

Heading into Saturday, Souza lamented while Friday’s win was worth celebrating, the team would have to forget about it because “it’ll harder to win down there tomorrow,” he said.

Souza was wrong. Saturday night’s game was a beatdown with the Wildcats dealing the punches.

Junior Chase Stevenson threw the first jab of the night with some help from MacKinnon. The defenseman delivered a shot from the blue-line that Stevenson’s stick deflected. Graduate student Eric Dop did not have a chance at making a play on the puck and saw it tumble into the twine.

Two minutes later, the Wildcats moribund power play dealt the uppercut. Junior Kalle Erikkson did his part in the 1-3-1 power play formation perfectly, saucing a sizzling pass across the ice to find Huard. Using his howitzer of a shot, Huard fired towards the bottom of Dop’s far post. The netminder read the play and reached out his pads only to find he was late.

With eight points during his four-game point streak, Huard is becoming a standout player for the Wildcats. And while Souza’s thrilled by Huard’s offensive development, it’s his decision-making process that has the coach inspired. The defenseman is beginning to understand the “Tom Brady rule” Souza said, that making the small passes opens up more of the ice and the potential to go even deeper on the attack.

UNH dominated the second even more than they did the first – tallying a goal that led Wilder to replace Dop in net, maintaining time of possession, two shots that just hit the pipe, and winning the faceoff advantage 16 to nine. The rout was on.

Or so it appeared. With 11 minutes to go in the third, the Eagles began to fight back. Helleson hammered a shot from the point that Robinson could not control, allowing sophomore Colby Ambrosio to tuck one into the net.

Five minutes later, the body blows kept coming. Again, despite Robinson’s best efforts, he failed to find the puck. A scrum ensued in front of the net. The scrum ended with sophomore Trevor Kuntar knifing the puck by the goaltender.

Yet Robinson got off the mat and delivered the knockout Saturday. The goalie made a series of sprawling saves in the dying minutes to preserve the two-goal lead and ultimately ensure the win.

“Michael [Robinson] is playing a real mature game right now,” Souza said. “Right now, we’re seeing him play some of those best hockey that he’s played at UNH and so we have no problem with him doing that.”

In the battle of strengths between two Hockey East teams, defense reigned supreme.

“I thought our D did a really nice job keeping them to the outside. We really try to control the middle of the ice. The most important tonight was second opportunities. I thought we did a really good job at that tonight.”

With the team playing their strongest hockey of the season, Souza said he is optimistic about where the team can still go.

“We think we play a structured and detailed brand of hockey. And when we play the game the right way it rewards us. I thought it did this weekend.”

The Wildcats take to the road next as they travel to Hartford, Conn. to play the UConn Huskies (9-9-0, 6-5-0) in a two-game series.

Photo courtesy of China Wong