HANOVER, N.H. — If his team keeps this up, Bob Gaudet is going to have a full head of gray hair by season’s end.
Gaudet’s Dartmouth squad kept shooting and missing Saturday night, to the tune of zero for their first 36 shots and a tough-to-swallow 2-0 Union lead.
But then the Big Green opened the floodgates in a big way, connecting on three of their next six shots as they lit the lamp three times in a two-minute, 15-second span of the third period. Junior Kent Gillings scored the first two goals on the power play before rookie Lee Stempniak poked in the game-winner just 12 seconds after Gillings’ second marker.
With the three goals in hand, Dartmouth held on for a 3-2 triumph, the team’s fourth straight game in which it won or tied when trailing in the third period. The Big Green (10-8-4, 7-4-4 ECAC) moved into a tie with Harvard and Clarkson for second place in the league standings.
“In the second period, we were just scratching our heads because their goalie was playing well and we couldn’t find a way to score,” Gaudet said. “Then, it was just the thought of playing one good shift at a time and not worrying about being down in the game. And then when the goals came, it was bang-bang-bang.”
Gillings, who missed two games last month due to food poisoning and then took a couple more to return to 100 percent, was at his dangerous best in this one, finding the puck at the right moments to help lift a Big Green team that was previously unable to solve Brandon Snee (44 saves).
Gillings’ first goal came at 4:26 of the third period, as he took advantage of chaos in front of the net to snap the shutout. Soon after, at 6:29, Gillings found the puck after Snee failed to freeze it, wristing in his eighth of the season to make it 2-2.
“Coming into the locker room after the second period, everyone was very optimistic. We knew we could do it because we’ve done it so many times in the past few weeks,” Gillings said. “We just put a good string of shifts together, got a couple of good ones on the power play and kept on rolling from there.”
Even before the crowd could finish applauding Gillings’ pair, Stempniak whipped the fans into a frenzy, collecting a rebound that kicked well out into the slot before slapping his seventh of the year into the back of the net at 6:41.
Stempniak, who scored Dartmouth’s game-tier in Friday night’s 2-2 stalemate with Rensselaer, recorded his first career game-winner.
“Stempniak is a great young player,” Gaudet said. “I thought his goal was the result of a great effort. It was a heads-up play.”
For the Dutchmen (11-8-5, 6-6-2 ECAC), who snapped a six-game unbeaten streak, the big-win-turned-devastating-loss was the result of an inability to play intelligently with the lead, according to their coach, Kevin Sneddon.
Union built a 2-0 advantage on goals from Jeff Wilson, who scored at 13:46 of the first period, and Charles Simard, who blasted one in off a faceoff at 10:51 of the middle frame.
But where they dominated early, the Dutchmen played back on their heels with the lead, surrendering 21 Big Green shots in the second period and only maintaining their advantage thanks to a masterful performance by Snee.
“I thought he played a great hockey game,” Sneddon said of Snee. “I thought he had a great weekend. Dartmouth could have walked away with it pretty early, and he kept us in it. That’s how good he is. He always gives you an opportunity to win games, but there’s only so much he can do.”
Although Snee, who recorded his third career shutout Friday night at Vermont, held the fort through the first two periods, the Dutchmen eventually succumbed to the Dartmouth shot barrage.
The breaking point came on the penalty kill, when Gillings went unguarded in the area around the crease, and as a result ignited the Big Green rally.
“I think Dartmouth deserved to win,” Sneddon said. “We had to play much better when we went up 2-0. We didn’t execute well on our penalty kill, giving them two good opportunities on that, and then made a very lousy play to give them the third goal. We did everything we could to hand it to them, and obviously they took advantage of it.”
The Dutchmen, for their part, remain in the chase for home ice in the playoffs. They are in sixth place with 14 points, one behind Colgate, who upset Harvard Saturday afternoon to temporarily grab the last home-ice spot.
Union now has six days to recover from this one before hosting Clarkson and St. Lawrence next weekend.
“We don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves,” Sneddon said. “We have two points to go after Friday night at home, and that’s what we have to focus on. You can’t feel sorry for yourself this time of year. We’re just going to focus on the positives.”
Dartmouth, meantime, is becoming an expert at keeping its composure in close games.
The Big Green has not won a game handily since a 5-2 triumph over Vermont on Jan. 4, but has nevertheless remained in the hunt for the regular-season title thanks to a string of gutsy third-period performances.
In this one, Gaudet knew his team had a chance, even when it trailed, 2-0, after two periods.
“I thought that if we got one in the first 10 minutes of the third period, we’d have a good chance to win,” the coach said. “Then I thought that once we got the first one, we had good momentum. I actually thought we had good momentum for a stretch, but you don’t have a whole lot of positive juice unless you score.”
Dartmouth will use this week to prepare for a rare one-game weekend. The Big Green will face Brown next Friday night in Providence.
“The one game next weekend is really huge for us,” Gillings said. “We have a lot of guys banged up — a few small injuries here and there. So it’s going to be really big for us to get some time off and just concentrate on Brown. They’ve been getting some good wins against top teams, so it’s going to take our best effort to beat them.”