DURHAM, N.H. — So what’s up with that?
No. 3 New Hampshire, the top seed in the Hockey East tournament, had a power-play percentage that sat near the bottom of the league during most of the regular season.
However, on Saturday night, something must have gotten into the water supply in Durham, as the potent Wildcats erupted for five power-play goals en route to dismantling Massachusetts-Lowell, 8-4, equaling Friday night’s final score and sending the River Hawks (11-20-5) home for the summer. UNH swept the quarterfinal series, 2-0.
By virtue of the victory, New Hampshire, which improved to 23-7-6, advances to the Hockey East semifinals at the FleetCenter in Boston on Friday. The Wildcats will face upstart Massachusetts, which shocked Maine in its own rink, also in a sweep.
Seven different players scored for UNH, including two goals by senior Colin Hemingway. And while he didn’t register a goal, senior defenseman Garrett Stafford had a career night with four assists.
“It was a great weekend of hockey for us. We made life difficult for ourselves at times defensively, but that’s a credit to UMass-Lowell,” said UNH coach Dick Umile.
Fourth-line center Robbie Barker made the Granite State faithful proud. The Concord, N.H., native scored his first collegiate goal, which turned out to be the game-winner.
“I didn’t even realize it went in,” said a jubilant Barker. “(Tyson) Teplitsky had a big smile on his face, saying to me, ‘It’s about time.’”
With the quarterfinal victory, UNH gained a measure of revenge against the River Hawks, who came into the Whittemore Center in the 2000-2001 quarterfinals and eliminated the Wildcats, two games to one.
“It’s clear to me that UNH has got their power play going,” quipped UMass-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald. “That was the difference. (UNH goaltender Michael) Ayers was exceptional. I’ve seen games where we would come out exactly the same way that we came out in the third period tonight, and end up with a one- or two-goal lead.
“Their power play and Ayers were the difference. The national championship teams that I’ve seen have always had both: great goaltending and success on the power play.”
In addition to Hemingway’s two tallies, Tyler Scott, Sean Collins, Jim Abbott (who recorded the trifecta the previous night), Kevin Truelson and Justin Aikins all scored for New Hampshire.
Senior defenseman Darryl Green had two goals for UMass-Lowell.
As was the case the night before, UNH struck first. On a shot that appeared to be going wide, Tyler Scott scored on what looked to be a deflection off of a River Hawk stick up high.
However, less than a minute later, senior Mark Concannon used a screen in front of Ayers to his advantage, walked in, and beat Ayers to knot the score at 1-1.
At the 10:33 mark, Ayers made a save worthy of SportsCenter.
UMass-Lowell senior Steve Slonina found himself in an enviable position: all alone, five feet in front of Ayers, and with the puck.
But a fleet-skated Ayers leapt into the air, flashed his glove, and miraculously denied the Abington, Mass., native.
Slonina avenged the save moments later, when he assisted on Green’s first of the night, to give the River Hawks their only lead of the series, 2-1.
New Hampshire scored the next four goals to build a 5-2 lead after two periods, helped along by a two-man advantage at 16:49 of the second period. Abbott picked up where he left off from the night before, sending a rocket past River Hawk netminder Dominic Smart.
Stafford garnered one of his four assists later on, feeding a cross-ice pass to a wide open Hemingway, who had an even more wide-open net to shoot at, burying his 19th of the season for yet another power play goal.
With a five-on-three advantage late in the second period, the Wildcats turned the Whittemore Center into a shooting gallery, doing everything but scoring, while hitting two posts to go along with a crossbar for good measure.
Frustrated after two periods, the River Hawks regrouped during the break and came out with a mission in the third, wasting no time to get on the scoreboard.
When a UNH defenseman got caught out of position, UMass-Lowell leading scorer Ed McGrane pounced on the loose puck, raced in alone, and beat Ayers from a tough angle to cut the deficit to 5-3 jut 24 seconds in.
The River Hawks kept the pressure on afterwards, not allowing UNH a shot on goal. And when Green potted his second of the night at 4:41 to narrow it to 5-4 UNH, prudent fans in attendance could see why this was the same UMass-Lowell team that dumped current No. 1 Colorado College, 4-1, earlier in the year.
“I give credit to Lowell. They send four guys in and find a way to score,” said Umile.
But as was the case throughout the two-game series, Ayers refused to give in, thwarting several River Hawk bids to preserve the lead.
New Hampshire recorded the next three goals to close out the scoring.
After the game, Stafford — one of six seniors on the UNH roster — was asked about his time in Durham.
“There’s a lot of memories here. The fans have been amazing. All the guys that I’ve played with, it’s been a great four years and a great experience. It’s nice to go out on a winning note here.”