WORCESTER, Mass. — The saying on the T-shirt reads, ‘Offense wins games but defense wins championships.’
New Hampshire, the nation’s No. 1 team, was tested by Cornell, the best defense in the nation Sunday, and learned it has a pretty good defense itself.
The Big Red dictated the style of play over the final two periods, but UNH is back in the Frozen Four, breaking a 3-3 tie with 2:39 left in the game on a shot by Jim Abbott through a screen for the 4-3 victory at the NCAA East Regional in front of 11,888 at the Worcester Centrum.
“We are just really thrilled with the outcome,” said UNH coach Dick Umille. “It was a back-and-forth game. Cornell cut down on our shots in the second period, and we’re just excited we pulled it out.”
Abbott, with only seven goals all season, was an unlikely hero on a squad that features a 74-point and a 64-point scorer in Darren Haydar and Colin Hemingway. The 6-foot-1-inch junior from Mars, Penn., netted the first and last goals of the night for UNH; the Wildcats never lost when he beats the goaltender.
“I just pulled the puck out of the corner and [forward Patrick] Foley set such a big screen for me, I just shot it low,” Abbott said. “He set such a big screen I never saw the puck go in the net.
“I’m just so excited that I was able to score the goal. I thought the goal I scored last week against Maine was big, but this is definitely the biggest goal I’ve scored.”
After a wide-open first period, UNH led 3-2, but the Big Red began to slow the play down and establish its physical game that held opponents to 1.76 goals against this year. Cornell outshot the Wildcats 6-4 in the second period and finally managed to tie the game at 13:27 of the third. Shane Palahicky batted a rebound that bounced off Wildcat goalie Matt Carney and in the net.
“The first period was New Hampshire hockey,” said Cornell senior defenseman Doug Murray. “In the second we came out and got back to what we discussed before the game. We didn’t turn the puck over, got it deep and got back to the way we wanted to play when the game started.”
After Palahicky’s goal, the Big Red had the Wildcats on the ropes and primed for a major upset that would have sent the first Ivy League school to the Frozen Four since Harvard in 1993-94.
“Our guys got better as the game progressed,” said Cornell coach Mike Schafer. “We have a lot of pride in our team and it’s unfortunate they made the play at the end of the game. We showed people why we won the regular-season title.”
Still, the strong showing was bittersweet for the Big Red.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” Murray said. “You play hockey for such a long time and you want to win — I’m not satisfied with any moral victories. Our team got more respect by [getting an at-large bid] than playing a good game against UNH.”
The Wildcats did most of their damage in the first period, when an unusually undisciplined Cornell gave them three power plays, including a two-man advantage. Hemingway netted two with the man-up, off assists by Haydar and Collins.
“Colin played great and he deserves a lot more credit than he’s gotten,” said Haydar, a Hobey Baker favorite. “Over the second half of the season, Hemingway has outdone me.”
UNH needed its power play, the best in the nation, to perform early because once the Big Red righted its ship, it became almost impossible to threaten goalie Matt Underhill. Underhill made 20 saves in his final college game; Carney stopped 15.
Stephen Baby and Sam Paolini scored the Big Red’s first-period goals, at 4:32 and 5:28, respectively, to give Cornell a brief 2-1 lead.
“We were playing the top defensive team in the country and we knew that we couldn’t get frustrated,” Haydar said. “We didn’t expect to blow them out and we were surprised that we had a 3-2 lead after one. We figured that would be the final score.”
With the victory, New Hampshire advances to the Frozen Four for the first time since 1999 with the opportunity to extract a little revenge against Hockey East rival Maine, which eliminated the Wildcats in the championship game that year.
“I look forward to [the team's fifth meeting against Maine],” Haydar said. “They put us out my freshman year and I’m going to get our team as prepared as possible to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
By advancing to the second round, Cornell equaled its NCAA performance of 1997, its last appearance. The Big Red last reached the Final Four in 1980, and won the national championship in 1970. New Hampshire is gunning for its first-ever NCAA title and with Denver eliminated, is now the only No. 1 regional seed left in the tournament.
Notes: Though the crowd of 11,888 fell short of the Centrum Centre’s capacity of 12,517, it set a new record for one-day regional attendance in the NCAA tournament. In addition, the two-day total of 22,433 eclipsed last year’s record of 20,721, also set at the Centrum in 2001.
F Colin Hemingway, New Hampshire
F David Klema, Boston University
F Lucas Lawson, Maine
D Doug Murray, Cornell
D Peter Metcalf, Maine
G Matt Yeats, Maine