MINNEAPOLIS — For six minutes at Mariucci Arena, it was a shootout.
Friday afternoon, Miami and New Hampshire scored three goals in the game’s opening minutes, then turned on their defenses. The result was a tight-checking matchup which ended up a 3-1 Wildcat victory in the semifinals of the Dodge Holiday Classic.
“You could tell it was settling down,” said UNH netminder Mike Ayers of the game flow. “After that first six minutes, I think we really knew what to expect.”
Despite the tight score, Ayers and his Miami counterpart, Brandon Crawford-West, were not the focal point. That honor went to the defenders — especially those wearing New Hampshire’s colors, who limited Miami to just 17 shots on goal and kept the potent RedHawk power play scoreless in five opportunities.
“We’ve been giving up too many shots,” said Justin Aikins, whose sixth goal of the season, just 5:34 into the first period, held up as the game-winner. “We talked about that this week.”
“Playing team defense first, and turning that into offense,” agreed UNH coach Dick Umile. “That was our goal. … You can tell when the feet are moving, and they were moving tonight.”
Not to be overlooked, Miami’s defense permitted UNH just 19 shots on goal, although the Wildcats’ scoring chances were of a higher quality. Crawford-West was called upon to make some good stops to keep the RedHawks in it.
“Outside of probably one shot tonight, he made some big saves,” said Miami head coach Enrico Blasi of his freshman netminder. Partly for that reason, the outcome was not settled until late, as UNH nursed a 2-1 lead for most of the contest.
Miami (10-7-2) opened the scoring just 3:25 in, when the RedHawks’ top line produced the game’s first goal. Operating in the Wildcat zone, Marty Guerin dropped a pass back for national scoring leader Derek Edwardson, who found linemate Matt Christie unmarked at the back door of the UNH net.
Christie easily tapped in Edwardson’s pass for his 12th goal of the year. The assist extended Edwardson’s scoring streak to six games.
New Hampshire (11-5-2), though, answered immediately — twice, in fact. Just 39 seconds after Christie’s goal, a similar play in the other end saw Tyler Scott put away a shot from in front after defenseman Tim Horst fired the puck from the point.
UNH then took the lead on Aikins’ goal, from between the circles off a Steve Saviano assist. At the time, it looked like the beginnings of a scorefest, but both defenses clamped down, allowing no goals for the next 48 minutes.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t chances. Miami was awarded a five-on-three power play late in the first when Tyson Teplitsky crosschecked Guerin, but the UNH defense held.
Early in the second, Preston Callander tried a stuff attempt after wrapping around the back of the net, but Crawford-West denied it with his stick along the ice. Several minutes later, Ayers stopped a similar try by Miami’s Todd Grant, who shot into the netminder’s chest.
Aikins made a bid for his second goal of the afternoon late in the period, redirecting a Mick Mounsey slapshot at point-blank range, but again Crawford-West was in position.
The RedHawks had the potential tying goal waved off with two minutes to go in the second. A slapshot from the point was batted down in the high slot and skittered past Ayers, but it was immediately ruled a high stick, and the goal was disallowed.
Early in the third period, Miami’s Mike Kompon had a golden opportunity to tie the game, beating a defender in front to earn a wide-open shot at Ayers, but the UNH goalie turned aside his backhand attempt.
New Hampshire finally ended the suspense at 13:46 of the third, when Callander finished off a two-on-one break with his sixth goal of the year. Daniel Winnik, skating up the left side, hit Callander with a pass just above the crease, and Crawford-West had no chance to stop the junior’s shot at the half-open net.
“They’re an experienced team,” said Blasi, whose team will play in the consolation Sunday. “They’re number six in the country for a reason.”
The New Hampshire win was a lift for a team which, despite its lofty ranking, has been inconsistent, suffering a couple of surprising losses.
“We’ve had some ups and downs in the first half,” said Umile. “Not a bad first half, but not as good as we’d like.”
UNH will next play in Sunday’s tournament championship, where the Wildcats hoped to meet host Minnesota in what would be a rematch of the 2003 NCAA title game.
“I think it would be nice to play them here, and see how the atmosphere is,” said Ayers. The Wildcat-RedHawk contest Saturday was played before a crowd that could generously be described as “sparse,” with less than a thousand in attendance at the start.
“Obviously, we’d like that opportunity [to play Minnesota],” said Umile, “but we’re just happy to be in the championship game.”