DURHAM, N.H. — Justin Aikins scored with just 41 seconds left in overtime to give No. 10 New Hampshire a thrilling victory over No. 14 Massachusetts, 3-2, in front of a packed house at the Whittemore Center.
Aikins was planted at the doorstep as the puck came right out in front of him off a rebound of a Sean Collins shot, and the junior buried it for his eighth goal of the season to a raucous ovation from a crowd that had been waiting for something to cheer about.
With the win, New Hampshire (16-10-3, 8-6-3 Hockey East) ended a three-game losing streak, during which they were outscored 14-5. Massachusetts (16-6-5, 12-4-2 HE) saw its four-game winning streak come to an end.
“Another tough night at the ‘Whit,’” sighed Massachusetts coach Don Cahoon, who watched his team lose its second straight overtime decision at the Whittemore center, and third consecutive loss in Durham. “We weren’t quite as organized tonight as we’d have liked to have been, and New Hampshire took advantage of that.”
The goal by Aikins, who was moved up to the first line at gametime by UNH coach Dick Umile, also spoiled a chance for the Minutemen to eke out a point, as senior Nick Kuiper tied things up at 2-2 with just 1:37 left in the third period. That one lost point could prove interesting down the stretch, as it would have put the Minutemen in a tie with Boston College for the top spot in Hockey East, with the two teams squaring off in a home-and-home series next weekend.
So what was the difference in Saturday’s result versus the night before, when Massachusetts thoroughly dominated the Wildcats in a 4-1 win at the Mullins Center?
“Richard (Umile, UNH head coach) mixed his package up a little bit tonight,” said Cahoon. “He moved three players into the lineup (Saturday) that didn’t play Friday. For us, for the first time since the Hockey East semifinals last year, we went with the same exact lineup as (Friday) night.
“If I had to do it over again, I’d probably switch a few players, since we’ve got some youth on our side. We certainly didn’t have as much energy tonight, that’s for sure.”
Umile finally witnessed a full effort from his squad.
“The difference, for us, was our work ethic,” said Umile. “We weren’t pleased with our performance last night; we talked about it today. We made a commitment to have a consistent, determined work ethic.
“Good things happen when you work hard.”
The game also marked a bit of redemption for New Hampshire senior goaltender Mike Ayers, who was pulled in both of the games at Maine last weekend (losses of 5-4 and 5-0). Ayers finished with 25 saves on the night.
Umile bristled when questioned about Ayers’ performance against the Black Bears.
“He didn’t play badly last weekend-we played badly in front of him,” said Umile. “We asked him to step up (tonight) and he did.”
The game was so evenly played through two periods that not only were the shots tied (at 10 after the first period, and 16 after two periods), but the score was as well. The first frame ended scoreless, but with both teams having good scoring chances.
UMass junior Greg Mauldin put an end-to-end tester on Ayers at the 4:00 minute mark, and sophomore Stephen Werner was off to the races after blocking a shot by UNH junior defenseman Tyson Teplitsky, only to have his shot go wide of Ayers. Later in the period, with UNH on the power play, Junior Tim Vitek broke in alone after a UNH turnover, but Ayers stood tall, making the save with the puck sitting at the doorstep.
New Hampshire’s best chance came late in the period, when Aikins found Collins for a wide-open shot from 10 feet out, but UMass sophomore goaltender Gabe Winer flashed the right pad to make a nice save.
New Hampshire drew first blood at 9:12 of the second period, courtesy of a too-many-men penalty by the Minutemen. Freshman Daniel Winnik sent home his own rebound from out in front for this fourth tally of the season.
Ten minutes later, with UNH having just killed off a hitting-from-behind penalty to sophomore Andrew Leach, Mauldin rifled a shot from the blue line that was tipped home past Ayers by Vitek to tie the score at 1-1.
Early in the third period, junior Preston Callander was camped out in front of Winer, and sent home the rebound of a Winnik shot to give the lead back to UNH, 2-1.
It looked for a while as though that Minuteman-killer Callander had put another dagger into the hearts of the spirited group that had made the trek from Amherst. Earlier in the season, it was Callander’s goal late in the third period that enabled the Wildcats to salvage a 2-2 tie in Amherst.
And last year, well, Callander was downright killer against the Minutemen. On 1/17/03 in Durham, he scored on a penalty shot to send the game into overtime (which UNH would go on to win, 2-1), and in the Hockey East Semifinals, he scored the game-winner in New Hampshire’s 5-4 victory en route to their second consecutive Hockey East tournament championship.
Kuiper, however, cared not about Callander’s success against the Minutemen, banging home a rebound in front of Ayers to tie things late in the third, setting the stage for Aikins’ heroics.
“Give UNH their due for playing real hard and getting it done at the end,” said Cahoon.
After the game, Massachusetts star defenseman Thomas Pock-who leads the nation in scoring by defensemen with 32 points, and who is also starting to get some serious consideration for the Hobey Baker award-was asked about how it feels to go from playing in front of a few hundred fans, to last night’s capacity crowd of over 6,613 which marked the third largest crowd for hockey in the history of the Mullins Center.
“It’s great to gain the respect of our fans. It says a lot about our program. We’ve built it from the ground up. We hope next week to sell it out again,” said the senior from Klagenfurt, Austria.
The Minutemen will get that chance next Friday, as they play host to No. 2 Boston College. Meanwhile, New Hampshire travels to the Tsongas Arena on Friday to take on Mass.-Lowell.