DURHAM, N.H. — Brad Nizwantowski’s goal 2:04 into overtime kept UMass-Amherst’s playoff hopes alive, as the Minutemen erased a 1-0 third-period deficit and defeated New Hampshire 2-1 on Senior Night.
Just moments after a Sean Austin shot through a screen fluttered just wide of the left post, Nizwantowski took a feed from Jay Shaw and skated in alone on Ty Conklin. Nizwantowski roofed a shot past Conklin that sent the sellout crowd home silent and stunned.
“I was saying to myself ‘just shoot it, just shoot it,’ ” Nizwantowski said. “Conklin’s a great goalie, and he robbed me earlier, and the last five times I’ve deked and missed, so I just wanted to shoot it.”
“It was a huge win for us,” said Minutemen coach Don Cahoon. “We were being outplayed early on, but [goaltender Mike] Johnson kept us in the game.
“As the game went on, we started to play better. We were always weary of letting up a breakaway, but we stayed within our game, and gave ourselves a chance to win.
“We were playing for the win. We knew that Merrimack had won, and we needed at least one point. We were fighting for our [playoff] lives tonight.”
New Hampshire (19-10-6, 10-8-5 Hockey East) came out flying, outshot UMass (8-21-4, 7-14-2) 12-4 in the first period and carried the play in the Minutemen zone for much of the opening 20 minutes, but Johnson stood tall for the most part.
New Hampshire’s lone goal came at 3:53 of the first. Darren Haydar dug the puck out of the left wing corner, and fed Garret Stafford at the point. Stafford’s shot was blocked by Johnson, and Matt Swain collected it, wristed a shot from the low slot that Johnson got a stick on, but managed to pop up over his head, and into the net giving the Wildcats a 1-0 lead.
The Wildcats didn’t muster another goal thanks to solid goaltending by Johnson.
UMass had its best chance of the first two periods when Nizwantowski collected the puck in the slot in front of Conklin, but Conklin added to his highlight reel season with an incredible glove save.
Conklin withstood increasing pressure, as the Minutemen outshot the Wildcats 10-7 in the second period, but the Hobey Baker candidate stood tall.
UNH and UMass traded decent scoring chances in the opening moments of the third period, but it was the Minutemen who finally capitalized at 11:55. Jimmy Callahan capitalized on a Mike Lubesnick turnover in the Wildcat zone, skated in alone on Conklin and roofed it past the Wildcat netminder, knotting the score at 1-1.
With the possibility of keeping their playoff hopes alive, the Minutemen tightened up, and only allowed the Wildcats a few good scoring chances, all of which were just wide, or were turned away by Johnson.
The third period ended with no more scoring, and the stage was set for Nizwantowski’s overtime heroics.
“Obviously I’m disappointed, that’s all I have to say about it,” said Wildcat coach Dick Umile. “I don’t think the weekend off had anything to do with it, there’s no excuse.”
Despite the loss, New Hampshire clinched home ice for the opening round of the Hockey East tournament thanks to Merrimack’s victory over Boston University.
After their first ever win at the Whittemore Center, the Minutemen need only a tie Saturday night to clinch the eighth and final playoff spot.
The two teams return to action at the Mullins Center in Amherst, Mass., where UMass defeated New Hampshire 3-0 in November, at 8 p.m. Eastern on Saturday.