BOSTON — This season New Hampshire has formed a monopoly on the number one. The Wildcats finished the season first in Hockey East, first in team offense, first in team defense, first in power play percentage and first in penalty kill. Nationally, they were first in the polls and first in the Pairwise Rankings.
Two nights earlier, UNH had likewise swept the league’s top awards: Player of the Year, Darren Haydar; Coach of the Year, Dick Umile; and Rookie of the Year, Sean Collins.
In other words, three more firsts.
Seemingly, the only way for the Wildcats’ stranglehold on the number one to get any more extreme would be for them to take away Sesame Street’s use of the digit and leave preschoolers to learn a number system that begins with two.
Except that UNH still hadn’t won a Hockey East tournament.
At the FleetCenter, the Jumbotron trivia question repeated with near metronomic regularity, “What is the only team that has won the regular season title and never won the tournament title?”
The answer, of course, was New Hampshire.
Which would allow cheap shot artists masked as opposing fans to say with derisive glee that “UNH” stood for “University of No Hardware.”
There would be only one way to shut them up. Just win, baby.
Standing in their way was the Wildcats’ nemesis, their neighbors from the north, the Maine Black Bears. In six all-time playoff contests with Maine, UNH had finished on the losing end each time.
Five came in the Hockey East playoffs, but the unkindest cut of all came in the 1999 NCAA Championship Game. Ten minutes into overtime, Marcus Gustafsson scored on a rebound of his own shot to give the Black Bears their second title while the Wildcats were left still searching for their first.
“It was tough,” said Darren Haydar. “I couldn’t bring myself to watch it [on tape] until the start of this year. I actually kind of forced myself to watch it to relive what it was like.”
Clearly, nobody had made it any easier for the Wildcats to get over the Hockey East championship hump this time. The Black Bears were no slouches themselves in the national rankings, coming in at number seven, and seemed to have history on their side.
UNH drew first blood in the opening period, but Maine rallied to tie the game after two. When Sean Collins gave the Wildcats a 2-1 lead early in the third period, their devoted fans held their breath and scarcely exhaled until Steve Saviano scored a big insurance goal to make it 3-1 with under four minutes remaining.
As the clock ticked down, the jubilant Wildcat faithful began to toss the derision back in the faces from which it had come earlier, chanting, “Where’s your hardware?”
And when the buzzer sounded and the clock read 0:00, New Hampshire had exorcised its Hockey East tournament title and its Black Bear playoff demons in one fell swoop.
“Oh man, it’s awesome,” said Colin Hemingway. “We made history tonight. Like Coach said in the dressing room, there have been a lot of guys come through UNH season after season after season who never had the opportunity to win this thing. We did that as a team and that shows the depth and the character and leadership of our team.”
And if on a scale of 1-to-10 a national championship is a 10, what would this be?
“Definitely around an eight,” said Haydar. “As Coach always stresses, sometimes it’s harder to win a Hockey East championship than it is the NCAA tournament. Teams know about each other. Playoff hockey is so much different than the regular season and guys are bitter at each other and want to get at each other. You have great players in this league and great teams. But look at where we are now.”
The view atop Hockey East is a sight to behold for both players and Umile, the architect of what has become a perennial powerhouse.
“I think we’ve learned from past experience that we maybe put too much emphasis on getting into the NCAA tournament before we got there,” said Umile of past frustrations. “So the guys made a commitment. We got a plaque in the locker room that says, ‘Game By Game…’
“It’s a commitment the team made back in September — win the regular season, win the Hockey East championship. Now you guys [in the media] are going to have to find something else to talk about because now we’ve won one.
“It’ll make my life a little easier, I’ll tell you that.”
Now, in this season of firsts, one remains. A national championship. Then the UNH monopoly on the number one will be complete.
“I’m satisfied tonight,” said Haydar, “but tomorrow morning I’m going to wake up and that NCAA tournament [championship] isn’t going to be there. We want to win that. That’s obviously the main goal.
“We’ve [fulfilled] two out of the three goals that we established at the start of the year as team and we’re working on that third one. We won’t be fully satisfied until we do that.”
The final number one not in UNH’s possession may soon be headed to Durham, New Hampshire.
Watch out Sesame Street.