BUFFALO, N.Y. — Never mind who wasn’t dressed for the New Hampshire Wildcats. You still have to play the game.
Niagara shocked the nation’s number-one team with a stirring performance at the HSBC Arena, handing UNH its first loss of the season by a 5-2 margin.
The Purple Eagles put on a relentless two-way display of hockey, and in doing so, validated some preseason prognostications that had them returning to the role of giant-killer.
This was not the first time Niagara had beaten UNH. Back in 2000, NU announced its arrival to the hockey world by eliminating the Wildcats in the opening round of the NCAA playoffs. Saturday’s victory was hardly less meaningful for this developing program.
“It’s the biggest win in my three years,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “It was one of those games where all the little details — loose pucks, physical play — just seemed to come together.”
“They did a good job in pressuring us tonight,” UNH coach Dick Umile said in a tight-lipped press conference. “They’re a well-coached team … I give them all the credit in the world for the victory.”
Early on, though, whatever thoughts Niagara may have had for an upset were dampened when UNH struck on its first power play. Tim Horst drilled a slapshot from the blueline past Niagara goalie Jeff VanNynatten to give UNH the lead.
Niagara struck back late in the first after Barret Ehgoetz crashed the slot and slammed home a rebound in front of UNH goaltender Mike Ayers.
In the pivotal second period, Niagara killed off three consecutive UNH power plays with excellent positional play and the acrobatics of VanNynatten.
“We tried to front their sticks and take a little less aggressive posture on the penalty kill,” Niagara forward Ryan Gale said. “And of course, Jeff was spectacular for us.”
“That was the decisive moment of the game,” Burkholder said in reference a dramatic VanNynatten glove save on the second UNH man advantage.
By closing the door on the Wildcats, VanNynatten enabled Niagara to regain momentum, culminating in a beautiful goal by Gale. The gritty forward beat his defender and looped in front of Ayers, undressing him in the process, and lifted a shot over Ayers’ splayed pads.
“Playing the number-one team in the nation put the fear of God in us,” said a relieved VanNynatten. “It certainly brought the best out in us.”
Niagara extended its lead late in the second when Ehgoetz deflected an Andrew Lackner blast from the point. Ehgoetz would go on to earn the hat trick later in the contest, but not before UNH made things interesting in the third by scoring quickly on the power play.
UNH captain Steve Saviano tallied on the power play when he redirected an odd bounce off the boards past VanNynatten’s short side.
“This has been a tough week for us,” Saviano said. “I’m sure we’ll bounce back from this.”
“Going into the game, we knew they were the best momentum team in the country and the best transition team in the country,” Burkholder said. “So in between the second and third period I thought they had us right where they wanted us.”
But tonight Niagara would not be denied. Gale scored again on a beautiful backhanded setup from Jeremy Hall to increase the lead to 5-2.
From there, the Purple Eagles pressed the action with confidence and aggressiveness, winning the little battles along the boards and at the blue line, which in the first period planted the seeds for a stunning upset.