WORCESTER, Mass. — For the third time in a row against New Hampshire, Boston University came away with a whole lot of nothing.
After shutting out the Terriers in their last regular-season meeting and also blanking them 1-0 in overtime in the Hockey East championship, Wildcat goalie Michael Ayers and a strong defense whitewashed BU once again, 3-0 in front of 8,927 at the Centrum Centre.
With the victory, the Wildcats wrapped up the Northeast Regional and earned a trip to Buffalo, where they will appear in the Frozen Four for the fourth time and look to bring home a national championship for the first time.
Josh Prudden, Patrick Foley, and Sean Collins buried goals for the Wildcats, while Sean Fields stopped 24 shots in a losing effort. Ayers was named MVP for the Northeast Regional.
“It’s awesome; it’s exciting: We’re going to the Frozen Four,” UNH coach Dick Umile said. “It was a great hockey game. I’m really proud of the way the team played tonight. Obviously the score was not indicative of the play that was going on out there between the two teams. It was great hockey: I was just thrilled with what our team accomplished tonight.”
Meanwhile, Terrier coach Jack Parker believed that his team had followed his blueprint for the game perfectly — they just didn’t win. “Frankly, that was the game we wanted to play,” Parker said. “For the most part, it was the way we wanted it to go. We wanted a low-scoring game and a low-shooting game.
“There was only one problem for us — that was Michael Ayers,” added Parker. “He played great and made some big saves when he had to. We generated some offense; we got some nice opportunities. He was where he needed to be, and their defense did a really good job of keeping us out and getting to rebounds.”
The most impressive aspect of the victory was that UNH had to do it largely without its leading scorer. Lanny Gare dislocated his shoulder in the early going, meaning that Preston Callander had to step up to play left wing on the top line.
“You’re not going to replace Lanny Gare,” Foley said. “One thing we had going for us is we play as a team. When someone goes down, someone else can go in and play that role. He’s not Lanny Gare, but Preston did a great job tonight.”
Early in the season, the Terriers had dominated the Wildcats at times. All parties agreed that the biggest difference in the last three meetings was that UNH redoubled its commitment to team defense.
“I think our defense has played great the last three times we played them,” Ayers said. “I can’t remember too many hard saves that I’ve had to make in those three games, so a lot of that is the defense and the forwards coming back to help out.”
“I think what we did different the last three games is that I didn’t coach — I let the team play,” Umile said. “I don’t think as a coach I had them ready, and BU beat us. After that, we changed a few little things and let the players play, and they did absolutely terrific the last three outings.”
“I don’t think anything was drastically different,” Parker said of UNH’s play in the three-game shutout streak. “The games meant more down the stretch here — teams get more thorough in February and March than they are in January — but I know there’s a big change in their defensive approach and how hard they’re playing defensively.”
BU had a 10-7 edge in shots in the first period, but it was a misleading statistic. With the help of a few power plays, UNH dominated the first 15 minutes but missed the net on many chances. A pair of two-on-one breaks — Steve Saviano and Collins at 4:55, then Tyson Teplitsky and Justin Aikins at 9:34 — brought the partisan crowd to life behind the Wildcats.
With Terrier Bryan Miller off for holding, UNH finally capitalized at 13:09. Garrett Stafford slid a pass from the left point to Callander cruising toward the net on the opposite wing. Callander’s shot took an odd bounce — it may have glanced off Prudden’s chest near the crease — before popping into the net. Initially Callander was credited, but upon review the goal was awarded correctly.
“We made a bad read on their power-play goal, and it cost us,” Parker said. “They didn’t make any bad reads on ours.”
BU gradually came to life in the waning minutes of the period. After Brian McConnell was hauled down at 15:11, Miller’s slapshot glanced off the crossbar on the ensuing power play. A subsequent Terrier power play at the end of the period looked anemic.
The second period featured fairly even play but no goals. On successive power plays, Terrier forward Mark Mullen had good opportunities when crashing the net, but Ayers stopped both. Shorthanded repeatedly, the Wildcats enjoyed an excellent chance while man down at the five-minute mark. Saviano took the puck away from Ryan Whitney at the right point and raced off for a breakaway. After several moves, he shot, only to have Fields make the big save.
UNH threatened again around the 14-minute mark. Two highly avoidable Terrier penalties — cross-checking by Ryan Priem and slashing by Brian McConnell, both in the offensive zone — gave the Wildcats a five-on-three power play for one minute, 22 seconds. However, UNH could do little more than pass around the perimeter of BU’s triangle of penalty killers, and nothing came of it.
By that point, BU had gone almost the equivalent of three full games without scoring versus their Granite State adversaries. UNH had the early jump again in the third period, with Prudden backhanding a bouncing puck off Fields at the 45-second mark. Jim Abbott and Collins followed with solid shots a minute later.
There weren’t any grade ‘A’ scoring chances either way until the Wildcats picked up the back-breaker at 9:12. Fields stopped an initial shot and tried to squeeze it between his pads, but he clearly wasn’t sure where the puck was. In fact, it sat motionless in the crease six inches away from him — until Foley arrived on the scene.
“It was your typical grinder’s goal: The puck was just sitting on the goal line, and I just went to the net,” Foley said. “I kind of had to leave my feet to get the puck. … It’s not one of those goals that you’re going to put on your highlight tape, but as far as momentum it was great to have that at that point in the game.”
The Terriers desperately tried to solve Ayers as time ran down on their season. Brian Collins had a good rush at 14:00, and Ayers came up with a glove gem on Frantisek Skladany from 20 paces with four minutes left.
“I do believe our defense is a very strong group, but Michael Ayers doesn’t give himself a lot of credit,” Umile said. “When we make a mistake and they get a good scoring opportunity, he makes us look good and keeps us in there. When we lost 5-2 at Boston University, it wasn’t Michael’s fault; it was the players and coaches in front of him.”
Parker pulled Fields with 2:46 remaining, and the Terriers hovered in the Wildcat zone for a few moderately good chances until Sean Collins lofted in an empty-netter from the neutral zone with 1:05 left on the clock.
In the Frozen Four, UNH (27-7-6) will face the winner of Sunday’s East Regional final between Cornell and Boston College. BU (25-14-3) looks for a better fate next year, albeit without seniors Meyer, Brian Collins, John Sabo, Mike Bussoli, Ryan Priem, John Cronin, and Andy Warren.
“I guess it’s a little more tough coming to my hometown college,” said New Hampshire native Meyer. “I was hoping to beat them and end their season tonight, but unfortunately it didn’t work out that way. It’s the end of my career so it’s really tough no matter who we lost to.”