BUFFALO, N.Y. — In Thursday’s opening game of the 2003 Frozen Four, New Hampshire goaltender Michael Ayers was forced to make just 19 saves.
One of them, though — with 25 seconds remaining in regulation on Cornell’s Stephen Bby — will forever live in Big Red infamy.
With the Wildcats leading 3-2 and Cornell goaltender David LeNeveu (18 saves) pulled in favor of an extra attacker, Bby came from behind the net to Ayers’ right. After his centering pass was blocked, Bby regained control with the short side of the net wide open.
Ayers, proving his worth as a second-team All-American goaltender, dove across the crease as Bby released the shot and got his head — that’s right, his head — in front of it, deflecting it off the crossbar and into the corner, enabling the Wildcats to hold on for the 3-2 win and their second-ever berth in the national championship.
“Bby was all alone and I knew he had the short side,” said Ayers, who extended his unbeaten streak to 13 games (10-0-3). “I knew there was enough commotion in front of me that he couldn’t put [the shot] far side, so I just threw everything I had to [get across the crease].”
According to head coach Dick Umile, saves like that one are becoming second nature for Ayers.
“I’ve seen him [make saves like that] again and again,” said Umile. “I can’t even look. You never know how the puck is going to bounce, but Michael stayed in and made it.”
The stop enabled the Wildcats to hold off a charging Cornell, which had battled back from a 3-0 deficit at the midway point to get within a goal and force the late tension.
It also gave Ayers the upper hand in what some labeled the top goaltending duel in the nation. LeNeveu, one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, was also the first-team East All-American goaltender with Ayers taking second fiddle.
Though UNH wound up on top, the game didn’t begin according to the game plan for Umile’s Wildcats. The opening 12 minutes saw UNH outplayed, outhit and outshot — with shots on goal at one point standing 7-1 in favor of the Big Red.
At 12:06, an early turning point occurred. Shane Palahicky appeared to give the Big Red a 1-0 lead when he redirected a Jeremy Down shot from the left point past Ayers. Immediately, though, referee Don Adam indicted that he would go to video replay to determine whether Palahicky’s stick was above the legal four-foot limit from the ice when it struck the puck.
After nearly seven minutes of review and discussion, Adam delivered the news to both benches: video replay had disallowed the goal.
That, according to UNH, was a huge lift.
“I initially thought it was a high stick,” said Ayers of his immediate protest to Adam. “I went to the ref … and he said he’d go upstairs. I had a good feeling about it and we were fortunate to get the right call.”
“[Cornell] had us on our heels in the first period,” said Umile. “But I thought after the no-call on the goal, that gave us some life and they really started to back up.”
Shortly after the goal was disallowed, UNH’s third and fourth lines used physical play for the first time in the game to give the Wildcats a spark — and the first goal.
After the third line bumped around the Big Red defense and generated UNH’s first two scoring chances, fourth-line center Tim Horst found himself free in the slot to bury Tyler Scott’s centering pass after physical play by Scott forced a Cornell turnover behind the net.
“In games like this, the top lines [of each team] balance each other out,” said Umile. “[The first goal] it was a key goal to get from the fourth line.”
It was no irony that UNH’s lower lines would step up. Earlier in the week, when it became known that leading scorer Lanny Gare would miss the semifinal game with a dislocated shoulder, Umile sent a clear message that the third and fourth lines would need to contribute for UNH to be successful.
“We’re not really a finesse line,” said Horst. “Any time we can get the puck down low and pin their defense in the zone, we’re doing our job.
“Everyone knew we had to step up with Lanny out. You can never replace Lanny Gare, but everybody stepped up their game tonight and our line knew that we could do it.”
After Horst grabbed the Wildcats the lead, Steve Saviano took control of the offense, scoring twice in the second period — first finishing a two-on-one and then firing a power-play shot short side on LeNeveu to give the Wildcats a 3-0 lead.
But Cornell never quit. While on the power play, coach Mike Schafer called timeout in the middle of the man advantage to rest his top unit. And 28 seconds later, that move paid off. Ryan Vesce deflected a shot from the left point through the legs of Ayers to make it 3-1 UNH at 9:38.
And in the third, with Cornell pressing, the Abbott brothers — Chris and Cam — finished off a nifty 2-on-1 play with Chris scoring his fifth goal of the season at 9:52 to pull Cornell within a goal.
But from there, Ayers shut the door, with his late-game save on Bby providing the highlight-reel finish. The win advances the Wildcats to the national championship for the second time, the other coming in 1999, when they fell, 3-2 in overtime, to Maine.
It also places a Hockey East team in the championship for the seventh year in a row — with Maine in ’99 and Boston College in 2001 winning the title.
Cornell, on the other hand, ends one of the best seasons in school history with a 30-5-1 record. That, though, won’t make things any easier in the short term.
“Right now, [the loss] is pretty tough to stomach,” said Bby, who finished his career 34th on the all-time Cornell scoring list. “It’s tough to see a positive now, but when we look back on this season later, we’ll realize it was a pretty good season.”