PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A pair of win-hungry squads took the ice Sunday night at Providence’s Schneider Arena, but it was visiting UMass-Amherst that went home with a victory in its Hockey East opener.
With the Friars (1-4-0, 0-2-0 HEA) and the Minutemen (2-2-0, 1-0-0) locked in a titanic struggle for two precious Hockey East points, it was expected that an ill-timed bounce of the puck would tip the scales of the game.
Just over five minutes into the deciding period, Brad Nizwantowski centered a pass that slipped through linemate Jimmy Callahan’s legs, off PC defenseman Dominic Torretti’s skates and over the goal line.
“It was just hard work,” Callahan said. “Nizwantowski got it on the boards and threw it toward the net. It went through my legs and just bounced off someone’s skate and into the net.”
Nizawantowski’s miracle bank shot gave UMass a 4-3 lead that it would not relinquish.
Mike Johnson was clutch in net for the final 10 minutes of the third. The senior made 10 saves in the third period alone, including his snuffing of a Friars power play in the closing minutes.
Nearing the end of UMass’ penalty kill, Friar forward Drew Omicioli slid unnoticed into the slot and fired a one timer labeled for the shelf. But the anticipatory Johnson moved to the top of his crease and engulfed the puck in a symphony of padding.
Johnson’s stoning of Omicioli was a sort of revenge from the only blemish on a near-perfect third period.
“It is really no surprise to us that [Johnson] is doing as well as he is doing,” UMass coach Don Cahoon said.
Following a blocked shot on a UMass power play early in the third, Omicioli countered, beating freshman defenseman Jeff Lang before firing a top shelf slap shot from the left circle that beat Johnson’s glove side.
Omicioli’s shorthanded marker momentarily knotted the game at three. The tally erased a slim one-goal margin that the Minutemen had held for the better part of the middle period.
The second period was a virtual stalemate for the first eight minutes until an aggressive UMass forecheck resulted in a Callahan goal at 11:12.
Junior defenseman Samuli Jalkanen cycled and fed forward Darcy King who, with defenseman Shawn Weiman draped on his back, threaded a swiveling backhand pass to a cutting Callahan for the goal.
“We had a lot of guys who were interested in getting on the puck,” said Cahoon of his squad’s tenacious forecheck. “That is the way we are going to score goals, by going to the net.”
The junior’s tic-tac-toe tally was the only material thing to be taken from a period dominated by the Minutemen. UMass notched nine shots in the period, to PC’s four, including a breakaway by Nizwantowski and a left circle snap shot from Matt Walsh.
“Our guys were anxious to play and we did a good job putting pressure defense,” Cahoon said. “That allowed us to tilt the ice a little bit.”
The Friars Nolan Schaefer continually made brilliant saves on prime UMass scoring chances. Instead it was the fluke shots that ended up beating him.
UMass’ first goal came on a miscommunication between Schaefer and defenseman Regan Kelly. Freshman forward Craig MacDonald took advantage of the turnover by sliding the puck through the Friar goalie’s wickets.
The Minutemen opened the Hockey East season with a win for the second year in a row, while Providence failed to take its first conference game in two tries.