WORCESTER, Mass. — Though the game was played in front of nearly a full house, it was two pairs that keyed top-seeded New Hampshire’s 5-2 victory over No. 4 St Cloud State in the first round of the NCAA Northeast Regional.
The pairs came from forwards Colin Hemingway and Preston Callander — each scoring two goals on the night to propel the Wildcats to a rematch of the Hockey East championship game when they take on No. 2 Boston University in Saturday’s regional final.
UNH’s victory was paced by the play of its special teams. The Wildcats converted for three power-play goals in nine attempts and surrendered only a five-on-three power-play goal to the Huskies.
“Specialty situations became a factor tonight — shorthanded as well as power play,” said UNH head coach Dick Umile, who will look to lead his team to back-to-back Frozen Fours for the second time in his 14-year career at New Hampshire. The Wildcats are still hoping to capture their first national title.
What put New Hampshire on the power play a remarkable nine times was its speed, forcing St. Cloud to take penalties along with the Huskies’ admitted “over-aggressiveness.”
“We tried to play real aggressive but I think our aggression took a little bit of a toll,” said junior Matt Hendricks. “Myself, I took two stupid penalties in the third period.”
“All year we’ve put ourselves into those predicaments,” said senior Ryan Malone, who scored one of St. Cloud’s two goals on the night. “Nine power plays is far too much to give [UNH] and they move the puck around well. They’re going to do damage with that.”
The biggest damage came midway through the second period when UNH’s Sean Collins tallied with the man-advantage for his 20th goal of the season. The goal, coming at 7:08 of the frame, gave New Hampshire a two-goal lead after St. Cloud had climbed to within a goal.
“Every time we made a mistake on the penalty kill, the puck went in the net,” said lighthearted St. Cloud head coach Craig Dahl after the game. “You can’t give up nine power plays in an NCAA game. We did a pretty good job of killing those penalties, but they still got three goals.”
With a packed crowd of 9,024 on hand in the Worcester Centrum Center, the electricity that the partisan UNH portion brought to the pregame carried right over into the first shift. Hemingway netted his first of the night just 10 seconds into the game, taking a pass from Lanny Gare and backhanding a shot past St. Cloud netminder Jake Moreland (25 saves) for the early 1-0 lead.
But with no worry in sight, St. Cloud settled down nicely, and with a five-on-three advantage later in the period, the Huskies capitalized. Malone pushed home the rebound of a blast from the point to even the game at one and send the message that this was not going to be a cakewalk for the Wildcats.
But late in the period, Hemingway lit the lamp again, this time firing a shot on the power play past Moreland to give UNH an important 2-1 lead entering the second.
After Callander pushed home his first of the night at 1:20, St. Cloud’s Jeff Finger knocked a rebound past UNH goalie Michael Ayers (35 saves) less than three minutes later to pull back within a goal.
That score stood until Collins’ critical power-play tally at 7:08 regaining the two-goal cushion for UNH. It was then time for the other half of the club’s specialty teams to go to work.
Early third-period penalties to Josh Prudden and Garrett Stafford forced the Wildcats penalty kill to go to work. And as has been the case much of the season, Ayers was the catalyst behind the kills, making big save after big save.
“Ayers provides [UNH] with outstanding goaltending,” said Dahl. “He doesn’t give up any cheap ones and that’s what gives them the shot.”
After the kills of the penalties, UNH killed what St. Cloud momentum remained when Callander tipped home his second of the game to finish the scoring and propel the Wildcats into the championship game.
The victory for UNH came after nearly a two-week layoff since the Hockey East final. That, admitted Umile, was something that worried him.
“We talked about it,” said Umile. “We had the same situation last year and we all know how that ended up (a 7-2 loss to Maine in the Frozen Four). But we had some players who were banged up so we needed the rest.
Without much rest, the Wildcats will now play back-to-back nights and face BU for the second time in three games. UNH defeated BU, 1-0 in overtime, to capture the Hockey East title two weeks ago in a game that featured top-notch goaltending.
Whether or not we can expect that again on Saturday, according to Umile, is not what counts.
“These are two teams that are really respectful of one another,” said Umile. “We know each other so well. And to have two Hockey East teams playing against one another in a regional final, it will make for a great game.”