BOSTON — Going into Saturday’s Hockey East final, New Hampshire was in an unlikely situation. Even though the Wildcats were the third seed playing the top seed and the No. 5 team in the nation, many signs pointed to a UNH victory.
With Boston College losing players to injury and illness, UNH didn’t have to contend with Hockey East Player of the Year and Hobey Baker finalist Patrick Eaves as well as second-line center Stephen Gionta and Peter Harrold — certainly one of the top four defensemen on the Eagles. Even more favorably, the Eagles had to work overtime, playing a semifinal record 89:09 the night before against Maine.
Yet the gritty Eagles pulled out the championship-game victory. Under the circumstances, didn’t it feel like a missed opportunity?
“That has nothing to do with it,” Wildcat coach Dick Umile said regarding BC’s situation. “They’ve got a lot of good hockey players. Obviously they’ve got some guys who are injured, but it doesn’t hurt more because of that. It hurt because we lost the opportunity.”
“They have a lot of depth on their team, and no matter who’s in the lineup they’re going to be a tough team to play against,” tri-captain Tyson Teplitsky said. “It’s not really a missed opportunity. We came into the tournament; we’re playing well. We played well last night. It’s just unfortunate that we couldn’t put the puck in the net.”
“We didn’t pull a whole lot of thought into that,” tri-captain Justin Aikins said. “We thought that BC would bounce back strong, and they proved that tonight. I don’t think we felt it was an advantage.”
If anything, the mood of the team in defeat was upbeat. Although the team lost an opportunity to win their second league championship in three years, they also believe they have found themselves to some degree in this tournament.
Flash back to the last two weekends of the regular season. After pulling off a gritty last-minute tie on the road against BC, the Wildcats inexplicably fared worse at home against the Eagles, basically costing themselves a league title by losing. In a pair of games against Boston University the following weekend, the Wildcats continued a disturbing trend of falling behind early and enjoying minimal puck luck. They were fortunate to pull out a 4-4 tie at BU and cursed in a subsequent home loss to the Terriers in a game where the puck went everywhere except in the net.
Cooling off a hot Northeastern team helped them quiet those who predicted that the Wildcats would not make the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2000-2001 season.
“I told them they’re a better team right now, having played this tournament,” Umile said. “I thought we got better at the end of the season with our playoff games against Northeastern. I thought we played extremely well here in the semifinal and final. So we’ve become a better team hopefully going into the NCAA tournament.”
“Even though it was a loss tonight, we played some of our best games this week that we’ve played all year,” Teplitsky said. “Everybody on the team stepped it up a notch with the playoffs coming around, and we’re looking forward at going into next weekend, having another opportunity to play.”
“We played good hockey this weekend,” tri-captain Preston Callander said. “It just came down to a couple of lucky bounces; that’s the game of hockey. BC’s a good team and not to take anything away from them, but a couple of lucky bounces are way, and it would’ve been a different story.”
One moderate surprise tonight was that Jeff Pietrasiak played in goal. Although the junior split time evenly with freshman Kevin Regan over the course of the season, Pietrasiak played in only two of the last 14 games after surrendering seven goals on 37 shots against Massachusetts-Lowell back on January 28. Coming into tonight’s game, Regan had a 14-3-2 record and a .926 save percentage, both a notch better than Pietrasiak’s 11-6-3 record and .903 save percentage this season.
“I think he did a great job, played extremely well,” Umile said of Pietrasiak’s performance. “We have confidence in both goalies. We’ll take it week to week, but Jeff played terrific tonight.”
All three Eagle goals were basically mano a mano between shooter and goalie: a rebound goal; a great individual effort off of a faceoff won by Brian Boyle, and then a mad dash by Chris Collins for the insurance goal. On the positive side of the ledger, Pietrasiak made a terrific save on Joe Rooney with 8:40 left. After not getting a single shot over the first 11 minutes of the final frame, their first one was a doozy — similar to the goal scored by Collins six minutes later.
Rooney got the puck off the skates of a UNH player going off the ice, raced in, cut across the slot, and tried to slip a backhander through the five-hole. Pietrasiak got just enough of the shot with his right skate to direct it wide, keeping the Wildcats in the game for the time being.
Less than three minutes later, he also denied Dan Bertram on an excellent scoring chance off of a rebound of Brian Boyle’s shot.
“There wasn’t a single goal that could be blamed on Jeff,” Aikins said. “He played a real good game. The second goal was a real bad bounce; the third goal was just a really nice play the kid made. That’s just the way that it goes. Unfortunately, we just didn’t seem to be getting the bounces that they were.”
Although BC abandoned their rotation to stick with their freshman goalie in both games this weekend, UNH opted to go with what worked well in the quarterfinals
“We ran it last weekend, and we were successful with it, so the plan going into the weekend was that Kevin would start the first game and Jeff would play the second game,” Aikins said. “We proved it last weekend: Regardless of who’s in net, we should be able to play well. Jeff proved it again tonight, and Kevin played a real good game last night.”
UNH is poised to make its fourth consecutive tournament appearance as well as their eighth in the last nine seasons. In fact, the team has now made the NCAAs in an enviable 11 of 15 seasons under Umile. In Hockey East, only Boston University has exceeded that mark with 12 tourney appearance over that timespan, while Maine has matched that achievement.
With all action complete, UNH should be a No. 2 seed. A matchup with Harvard in Amherst seems to be most probable, although Wisconsin is another possibility. Umile would prefer to see all four Hockey East teams stay in Massachusetts next weekend.
“I’d like to see everybody stay here [in the East] but obviously that’s not going to be the case,” Umile said. “We’ll figure this out. BC’s going to be a No. 1 seed; BU’s going to stay home because they’re hosting. Hopefully we’ll stay in the East, but I have no control over that. Maine, I believe will probably. Who knows? If I was to guess right now, I would say that Maine would be going west, but that’s just my personal opinion. But there are four [Hockey East] teams who could win this thing.”
“We’ve heard Amherst, but no matter where we go we’re just happy to be in the NCAAs,” Teplitsky said. “We’ll take it as it comes; we should be ready to play anybody. Personally I’d rather stay in the East to get more fans out there and be in familiar territory.”
“We’re a good team, we played hard, and who knows?” Umile said. “Maybe we’ll win the big one.”