DURHAM, N.H. — The University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore Center is not the place where you want to break a losing streak.
UNH, propelled by a goal and two assists from junior Lanny Gare, continued its dominance over Merrimack, as the top-ranked Wildcats won their sixth in a row, 6-2, in Game One of their best-of-three Hockey East Quarterfinal Series. New Hampshire extended its playoff winning streak to seven games against the Warriors. Merrimack has not defeated New Hampshire since the 1995-96 season, going 0-21-3 during that span.
“I was pleased with the way that we played tonight. We kept the pressure on, and finally got to [Merrimack goaltender Joe] Exter. I was getting a little nervous when it got to be two-one, but we were able to open it up in the second period,” said New Hampshire head coach Dick Umile.
Asked about the team’s second line performance, specifically Gare’s, Umile responded, “They’ve been doing it all year for us. It was good to see Lanny put it in the net tonight. He’s been snake-bit lately, but he got the puck on net tonight, and it finally paid off for him.”
New Hampshire received scoring from all four of its lines on the night.
“I think New Hampshire is a pretty good hockey team. You can’t have mental breakdowns at crucial points like we did against a team like that,” said Merrimack associate head coach Mike Doneghey.
Junior Josh Prudden started the scoring, picking up his own rebound in front and beating Exter for a 1-0 New Hampshire lead. Gare recorded his first assist of the night, along with classmate Colin Hemingway. Merrimack was on its heels for most of the period, as the Wildcats outshot the Warriors, 13-5. While Merrimack couldn’t muster up much offense of its own during the first period, the Warriors were at least able to hold the highest-scoring team in the nation to just one tally.
However, David Busch helped get New Hampshire back on the board at the 1:45 mark of the second period. The senior forward picked up a loose puck off a scrum in front of Exter, wheeled in front, waited patiently for Exter to go down, then fed a cross-ice pass to a wide-open Tyson Teplitsky, who flicked the puck in the back of the net for a 2-0 Wildcat lead. It was the fourth goal of the season for the freshman.
Busch, along with Darren Haydar, represent the only remainining members from the Wildcat squad that made it all the way to the National Championship game in the 1998-99 season, which lost to Maine in overtime, 3-2.
The Wildcats had a boat-load of chances to put the game away in the second period, none better than a bid by Sean Collins. The freshman was all alone in front of Exter, but could not lift the puck, and the junior goalie made a diving save. New Hampshire clearly dominated the period, with Teplitsky and Josh Prudden also having golden opportunities to score as well.
However, when Alex Sikatchev scored at the 9:18 mark, all of a sudden Merrimack was back in the game, despite being almost completely outplayed. Warriors leading scorer Anthony Acquino picked up a loose puck behind the New Hampshire net and fed a pretty pass to the junior forward, who beat UNH senior netminder Matt Carney to get Merrimack on the board.
It looked as though the Warriors were going to be able to go into the dressing room only down a goal after two periods, but New Hampshire’s relentless attack proved to be too much, and several odd-man rushes into the Merrimack zone at the end of the second period finally paid off for the Wildcats. Colin Hemingway picked up a loose puck in front of Exter, waited for him to go down, and potted his team-leading 31st goal of the season with just 24 seconds left in the period to make it 3-1 New Hampshire.
“I think that anytime a team scores in the last minute of a period, it’s a momentum changer,” said Hemingway.
Added Umile, “That was a huge goal.”
Doneghey, not surprisingly, saw things on the opposite end of the spectrum.
“One of the cardinal rules of hockey is to not give up a goal with under a minute left to play in a period. We broke that rule and paid the price,” he said.
Nevertheless, Exter was solid in net the entire contest, none better than in the second period, when the Wildcats poured 20 shots on goal.
Merrimack started the third period with several chances of its own. Junior Nick Torretti’s shot was stopped by Carney, with the rebound bouncing off teammate Stephen Crusco, then bouncing off the crossbar. The puck was finally cleared out of the UNH end, with the Wildcats still holding on to a 3-1 lead.
A few minutes later, New Hampshire’s vaunted offense struck again. Coming in waves throughout the game from start to finish, New Hampshire found a seam in the Warriors defense, and Justin Aikins took a pass from sophmore Tim Horst across the Merrimack Blue line, deked a Merrimack defender, faked Exter, and slid the puck to the open right side for the fourth goal of his freshman season.
Gare, who perhaps was the hardest-working Wildcat in New Hampshire’s 2-1 win over Boston College last Sunday — with little to show for his efforts — finally scored that elusive goal that had arguably been due to him for a while, at the 9:20 mark. Teplitsky and Hemingway assisted.
“We’re pretty much best friends off the ice. We know each other pretty well,” said Gare of linemates Prudden and Hemingway. “If the other team is keying on [Darren] Haydar’s line, our line or one of the others can usually come through,” he said.
Merrimack got closer at the 10:29 mark, as Matt Foy recorded his seventh goal of the season. However, any hopes for a Merrimack rally stopped short at the 16:00 minute mark, as Carney robbed a wide-open Torretti in front.
“Carney made several outstanding saves tonight. I’m sure that Michael [Ayers] will do the same tomorrow as well,” said Umile, referring to what has become UNH’s Dynamic Duo goaltending rotation of Carney and sophmore Michael Ayers.
Darren Haydar closed out the scoring at 18:42, with his 28th goal of the year (a power-play goal), moving him past Louis Frigon as the number two all-time leading goal scorer at UNH. Haydar also moved past former Wildcat star Jamie Hislop as the third highest point scorer in Wildcat history.
Said Doneghey regarding the UNH onslaught, “We have to slow these guys down. They have great team speed, especially in this rink. That’s why they’re number one in the country. They’re deep.”
Despite the fact that New Hampshire finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in both the USCHO.com and Coaches Polls for the first time in school history, the Wildcats players and coaches have deeper interests.
“We don’t think too much about being ranked number one. Our goal right now is to get to the Fleet Center…..one game at a time.” said Hemingway.
The Wildcats and Warriors resume their series tomorrow night at the Whittemore Center, as New Hampshire attempts to advance to the Hockey East Semifinals for the first time in two years.