DURHAM, N.H. — If anyone thought that New Hampshire would still be feeling the effects of a letdown after losing in the national championship game six months ago, think again.
Michael Ayers broke the all-time UNH shutout mark with his ninth career blanking, while Nathan Martz and Justin Aikins each had a goal and an assist to power the No. 4 Wildcats past Vermont, 3-0. Ayers broke the record that he shared with former Wildcat goaltender Sean Matile.
“I really didn’t think about it. I just thought it was great that the team got out to an early lead,” said Ayers. “This was more of a team-based win. Their work down low enabled me to make the saves that I needed to make.”
The damage could have been much worse, had it not been for the stellar play of Vermont goaltender Travis Russell. The Vermont native stopped a barrage of scoring opportunities for the Wildcats, many of the breakaway variety and most in the first period, when UNH outshot the Catamounts 11-3.
“A positive out of this (game) that we’re focusing on now, which was a question mark coming into the season, was the play of Travis,” said first-year Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon. “UNH just played too well on special teams tonight.”
Indeed, the Wildcats scored two power-play goals along with a shorthanded tally to put the game away. New Hampshire had a bushel full of chances in the first period — with junior Sean Collins having at least a half-dozen.
The first-line tandem of Collins and senior Steve Saviano, both of Reading, Mass., were buzzing the Vermont goal from the drop of the puck. With UNH captain Patrick Foley in the penalty box for hitting from behind, Saviano kept the pressure on in the Catamount end. He fired a pass to a streaking Collins, whose first shot was stopped by Russell. Collins pounced on the rebound and sent it up and over Russell for a shorthanded goal and a 1-0 UNH lead just 2:50 into the game.
Collins almost made it 2-0 on the same Vermont power play, when he was sent in alone only to be thwarted by Russell. Later in the first period Collins and Aikins both went in on breakaways as well, but to no avail.
“I thought we generated a lot of scoring opportunities early. I was a little concerned that we didn’t put them away,” said New Hampshire coach Dick Umile.
UNH began the second period the same as the first, with an early goal. Martz made a crisp pass to Aikins in the slot, who wristed it past Russell for a 2-0 New Hampshire lead. Aikins’ goal helped to counter his three trips to the sin bin on the night.
Vermont’s best chance came on a turnover in the UNH end, which led to a four-on-one rush towards Ayers. But defenseman Robbie Barker of Concord, N.H., made a diving block of a pass, kicking the puck out to linemate Brian Yandle.
Vermont got another chance later when Baron Becker found himself open in front of Ayers, but the UNH goalie got enough of the shot with his glove.
The Catamounts came oh-so-close to cutting the lead to one early in the third period. On the power play, Scott Mifsud sent a slapshot which bounced off Ayers’ blocker, off the crossbar, then trickled wide through the crease. The shot had Mifsud raising his hands and the Vermont bench calling for a goal, but the goose egg remained.
Martz finished out the scoring on the power play, launching a rocket from Aikins that clanged off the post and past Russell to make it 3-0.
“I got lucky,” said Martz of the goal. “(Sean) Collins should have been out there, but he banged his head the shift before, so he should have been at that spot. I just one-timed it. It was one of those games where everything went well.”
Vermont would not go away, however, and the Catamounts controlled the play late in the third. Only a shutout-saving, point-blank stop on UVM captain Jeff Miles by Ayers assured the victory, the shutout, and the place in the record books.
With the win, New Hampshire starts off the season at 1-0-0, while Vermont falls to 0-2-0.
The win marked the eighth straight time that New Hampshire has beaten Vermont, and the second consecutive shutout, following last year’s 10-0 shellacking in Burlington.
“I thought that we were much better tonight than we were against Boston College,” said Sneddon. “UNH is an elite hockey team, with their speed and transition game. They did a tremendous job in their own zone.
“We couldn’t get anything going offensively against them, and that’s a credit to them.”
Vermont next hosts Boston University on Oct. 18, while New Hampshire hosts Merrimack on Oct. 16. Both contests are at 7 p.m.