CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — In a game that was meaningless in almost every way, an injury and a milestone became its most memorable characteristics.
One night earlier, New Hampshire had clinched a Hockey East regular season title with a 5-2 win over Boston College, rendering this contest irrelevant to both teams’ playoff positioning.
As a result, an injury to BC defenseman J.D. Forrest overshadowed the 2-1 UNH victory. With four minutes remaining, he went into the end boards with Sean Collins and suffered a major gash in his wrist. Collins actually pointed the injury out to Forrest and alerted referee John Gravellese to stop play.
Forrest rushed off the ice, applying pressure to the wrist, and was taken to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Considering the severity of the cut, a high likelihood existed of some tendon damage, which would require surgery and almost certainly end the defenseman’s season.
On a positive note, UNH goaltender Michael Ayers set a new Hockey East record for save percentage while stopping 24 of 25 shots. His .938 mark tops the performance of his predecessor in the Wildcat nets, Ty Conklin, who posted a .930 save percentage last year.
Ayers, who also finished with the lowest goals against average in the league (1.79), had to battle adversity in several forms. Not only did his father pass away during the offseason, but the goaltender also suffered a sliced tendon in his wrist during a Feb. 1 game at Maine. He returned the next evening wearing a brace, deferring surgery until the following week because his partner in the rotation, Matt Carney, was out with a concussion. In his only other game following the surgery, he shut out UMass-Amherst last Tuesday.
“Good for him,” said UNH coach Dick Umile. “Both of our goalies have played very well.
“He beat a pretty good guy in Ty Conklin, so I’m happy for Michael. He’s gone through a lot this past year…. Congratulations to him.”
Ayers opened the season with a rocky five-goals-allowed performance against Rensselaer, but came on strong after that debut. He hasn’t allowed more than three goals in any of his last 11 games.
“It was tough getting going this year,” he said. “After a while, the coaches gave me a lot of help and guidance. It was a long season, but I’m very happy that it went the way it did.
“I’m happy with what I’ve done. I’ve worked hard to get where I am. I’m just glad it’s paying off right now.”
The game itself was a rather lackluster affair until the third period when UNH outshot BC, 15-7, and got the winning goal from Colin Hemingway on the rebound of a rebound shot. It was his 30th of the season.
“I was just following the play, going to the net and popped in an empty net goal, pretty much,” he said.
New Hampshire finishes the regular season with a 25-6-3 overall record and a 17-4-3 mark in Hockey East, four points ahead of the field. It hosts eighth-seeded Merrimack (11-21-2, 6-16-2 HEA) in the league playoffs beginning on Friday.
Boston College (18-16-2, 10-13-1 HEA) was insured of being the number six seed after Saturday night’s loss. The Eagles will travel to Maine on Wednesday for a series that begins Thursday evening.
“We knew we were in for a battle, [but] I thought we competed very, very well,” said BC coach Jerry York. “They have an excellent hockey team.
“Giuls and Ales [Jeff Giuliano and Ales Dolinar], our two seniors, had their last game at Kelley Rink. We wanted to make them proud of our club and I think they were very proud of the effort.”
When UNH scored just 43 seconds into the game, it conjured memories of one night earlier when the Wildcats had jumped to a 3-0 lead over BC by the seven-minute mark. Darren Haydar picked off a hard rim of the puck around the boards, skated in and dished off to Steve Saviano down near the end line. Saviano then beat goaltender Matti Kaltiainen from a sharp angle.
Unlike the night before, it was BC that carried the play over the next five minutes, generating quality opportunities by Tony Voce, Ryan Shannon and Giuliano. However, Ayers was up to the challenge.
The period ended with the Wildcats on top, 1-0, despite being outshot 11-7.
The Eagles evened the score at 11:29 of the second period while on the power play. Forrest shot from the point and the rebound caromed to Ben Eaves inside the left faceoff circle. Eaves put the puck on net and it glanced off Giuliano to Voce in front. With a cluster of bodies in front of him, Voce patiently declined to shoot into the traffic and instead pulled the puck around to his backhand and lifted it over Ayers. It was Voce’s 24th goal of the season.
In the opening minutes of the third period, UNH first threatened with a Preston Callander opportunity in front that required a big Kaltiainen save. Then Kevin Truelson hit the post on a rebound of his own shot.
BC countered with an Eaves shot from the point at 6:20 that appeared to clang off the metal inside the net, according to many press box, but the goal light never went on nor did any Eagles object.
Hemingway got the game-winner at 12:27. Callander shot from the left faceoff circle and the rebound went to Lanny Gare in front. Kaltiainen made the stop on Gare’s shot, but couldn’t control the rebound. It went to Hemingway, who buried it for his 30th goal of the season.
The BC goaltender, however, redeemed himself nicely with stops on not one but two Sean Collins breakaways.
With UNH killing a penalty over the final minute, BC generated great pressure with an extra skater in place of Kaltiainen but could not solve Ayers.