DURHAM, N.H. — On the strength of a late second- and two third-period goals, the New Hampshire Wildcats came back to defeat the UMass-Lowell River Hawks 4-2 in Hockey East quarterfinal action at the Whittemore Center Thursday night.
“Obviously I’m pleased with a good team effort,” said New Hampshire head coach Dick Umile. “I thought we played a solid game for 60 minutes against a good team. Specialty situations [were key], we got a power-play goal, and did a great job killing penalties.”
With the two teams tied 2-2 in the third period, New Hampshire (21-10-6) took their first lead at 8:26. Matt Swain collected a nifty feed from Darren Haydar just inside the red line, beat a lone defender at the left-wing blue line, skated in alone on Jimi St. John, and feathered a backhand shot through the pads to give the Wildcats a lead they would not relinquish.
“I think we caught them in transition,” said Swain. “We made a good play at our blue line to turn the puck over. I was trying to beat their D, and Darren made a great pass to me, and I was able to beat their last man back. I was able to slide it through. It was a great play by Darren.”
“He’ll probably take credit for that one,” joked Swain.
Nathan Martz added an insurance goal less than four minutes later.
Jim Abbott picked a defenseman’s pocket behind the net to St. John’s left, skated behind the net out to the right faceoff circle, and wristed a shot on net. St. John made the initial save, but Travis Banga poked it over to Martz, who flipped it into the net over a fallen St. John giving the Wildcats a 4-2 lead at 12:05.
“[The Martz goal was] definitely a big goal,” said Haydar. “We’ve been playing one goal up the last few games, and we’ve kind of sat back on it, so it’s definitely a good feeling to have one of those guys put the puck in the net, to give us the two goal lead.”
Solid penalty killing and strong goaltending by Ty Conklin down the stretch fended off a late Lowell (17-15-3) rally, preserving the victory and giving the Wildcats a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series.
UMass-Lowell struck first just 1:57 into the game. Just moments after Ron Hainsey was stoned by Conklin all alone in front, New Hampshire failed to clear in the middle of a line change. Ed McGrane broke in three-on-one with Hainsey and Peter Hay on his wings. McGrane fed Hainsey on the left wing. Conklin made the save on Hainsey’s bid, but Hay was there to flip the rebound past Conklin, giving the River Hawks a 1-0 lead.
New Hampshire and Lowell traded solid scoring chances throughout the first period, and New Hampshire tied the game at 16:09.
With the Wildcats on the power play, Mark White dug the puck out of the corner to St. John’s left. White flipped the shot towards the net, collected the rebound in the low slot, and backhanded a shot high past St. John to knot the game 1-1. Colin Hemingway and Lanny Gare assisted on the goal.
The second period started with a nifty play by Yorick Treille and a sweet save by Conklin. On the opening shift, Treille feathered a pass from the left-wing boards through the slot, where Chris Gustafson’s one-timer from the doorstep was knocked away by Conklin.
The River Hawks capitalized again on New Hampshire’s failure to clear the zone. Geoff Schomoygi picked up the puck deep in the New Hampshire zone, and lifted a shot towards Conklin that seemed harmless. The puck deflected off Conklin’s stick and into the net, giving the River Hawks their second lead of the game, 2-1, at 3:19.
New Hampshire had a great chance to score midway through the period when Colin Hemingway found himself alone in front of St. John. Hemingway wheeled around, and fired a shot right into St. John’s chest, and the game remained 2-1.
The Wildcats again tied up the game at 14:19. Darren Haydar avoided a check by Josh Allison in the corner to St. John’s left, and carried the puck towards the net. Haydar managed to slide the puck through the pads of St. John, and the game was tied at 2-2.
“It was a lucky goal,” said Haydar. “I just went to the net, a guy hooked my left arm, and I just reached to poke it towards St. John, and somehow it squeaked through him.”
The period ended as it began with both teams deadlocked and the stage set for the third period, where the Wildcats took control of the game.
“I thought we had our moments where we carried the play, but I thought UNH outworked us for a lot of the game, and capitalized when we turned the puck over on several occasions,” said Riverhawk head coach Tim Whitehead. “They’re a good hockey team, and I felt they were the better team tonight.”
“I thought the first couple of shifts were good, and obviously the goal was good, and we got away from our game a bit. In the second period we went back out, and played the style of play we need to play, hustling, winning loose pucks, and taking the body. In the third period, they ended up winning. They won the third period, and as a result, they won the game.”
The key to the victory was how New Hampshire was able to match UMass-Lowell’s physical play.
“The whole year, they played us pretty tough,” said Swain. “We knew coming into this game that it was going to be a physical game, and we had to match that intensity. I think we did, I think we beat them in their corners more than they beat us, and I think it showed with the chances we created.”
“We played an okay game,” said Hainsey. “The last three goals they scored were all individual battles that we lost. Their guy outbattled our guy, and it ended up in the net. That’s what the playoffs are usually about. You watch the NHL playoffs and it’s usually a bounce, or just one guy outwilling another guy in a tough situation, and that’s the difference in the game. If you’re going to be successful in the playoffs you can’t be beat one-on-one, and unfortunately it happened to us tonight.”
“For us to be successful, we can’t allow them to win one-on-one battles like they did tonight,” agreed Whitehead. “That’s when we know we’re not on top of our game, when guys are winning one-on-one battles against us, and that’s what happened tonight. I have to give credit to UNH — they won a couple of more battles than we did, and that was the difference”
“It’s a great win, it’s over and done with, and we start over again tomorrow,” said Umile.
The two teams match up in the second game of the series Friday night at 7:00.