MANCHESTER, N.H. — So much for the home-state advantage.
For the New Hampshire fans who traditionally throw a fish onto the ice after the first Wildcat goal of the game, this one was a real stinker, figuratively and literally. Michigan effectively shut down the Wildcat attack for 53 minutes and 46 seconds, culminating in a 4-1 victory for the Wolverines in the second game of the Northeast Regional.
The Wolverine line of Brandon Kaleniecki, Andrew Ebbett, and Milan Gajic combined for three goals and three assists, and Al Montoya made 27 saves for Michigan. In his final collegiate game, New Hampshire goalie Mike Ayers made 34 saves for the Wildcats in front of a largely-disappointed sellout crowd of 10,104 in Manchester’s first-ever Regional.
“I think the first goal was important for us … obviously to maybe take away a little from the home crowd,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “The second goal was huge, and we had some timely saves from Al Montoya.
“There’s nothing like scoring goals to generate enthusiasm for one team or to discourage the other team, and we had the edge in that department tonight. The pressure’s always on the home team in these events. We know what that’s like, and if you don’t get off to a good start, it can be tough.”
Every time UNH mustered some momentum, the maize-and-blue Wolverines deflated it quickly with a goal, including a few directly after a Wildcat opportunity.
“I think our team was very focused on not letting any momentum go against us for long, particularly if we had another line up, they knew they had to go out and get things back on track,” Berenson said.
“I thought Michigan played very well today,” New Hampshire coach Dick Umile said. “I’m really proud of how we played in the second and third period regardless of the score. We never gave up; we lost to a good team.
“Obviously, you’ve got to give credit to [Michigan]. They came out and were quicker than we were, but the bottom line is that we were only down one-nothing after the first period, and there was plenty of time left in the game. So we battled in the second and third period, and maybe didn’t have much puck luck in getting one past them.”
With a partisan crowd in their home state, the last thing that the Wildcats wanted was an early goal to quiet their fans. However, that’s exactly what happened. Just 65 seconds into the game, the Wolverines took the lead on Kaleniecki’s first goal of the after Ebbett threw the puck into the zone.
“Ebbett had the puck coming through the neutral zone, kind of a two-on-two,” Kaleniecki said. “He dumped it into the corner and got a pretty good bounce off the back boards. I was going to the net and had a pretty good whack at it.
“And their D — I don’t know what happened, if he fell down or something — but I stopped, and the puck was just sitting there. I just tried to get it up and in. Fortunately I got it over his shoulder.”
“I was a little nervous getting out; I didn’t know if I was going to get to it before they did: they were flying down the ice,” Ayers said. “I believe it was Tyson [Teplitsky] who was tied up with the guy. He chipped at it, and Tyson blocked it. I kind of lost it for a second, and he pulled it from behind the goal line and put it short side.”
“We knew coming into this game that the UNH fans would really get behind their team if they had an opportunity,” Michigan defenseman Brandon Rogers said. “I think that was a big goal for us, coming out in the first minute of the game to score a goal and quiet down the crowd. We knew that if we didn’t, it could be a long night for us.”
The Wolverines continued to look quicker, and more energetic than the Wildcats. On a power play at 4:15, freshman T.J. Hensick showed why he is arguably the best rookie in the nation, streaking through the UNH zone with poise and patience before finally releasing a solid shot. The Wolverines dominated territorially with the man advantage, as the top power-play unit threaded tic-tac-toe passes with ease, but with no results on the scoreboard.
With hands full containing the Michigan attack, UNH failed to get a shot on goal until 9:50. Michigan dominated play in the period, with their best subsequent chance coming at 19:40, when Dwight Helminen blew by Brian Yandle.
If the offense was lopsided, though, the teams were even in terms of physical play, with Wildcat winger Sean Collins giving the much larger Eric Nystrom difficulties. There wasn’t much other good news for the ‘Cats in the first period, though — except that they were only down 1-0.
The Wildcats showed signs of life in the second stanza, abetted by a four-on-three advantage in the early going. They enjoyed a solid territorial edge, but no grade ‘A’ scoring chances.
But after a little more Wildcat pressure at the nine-minute mark, the Wolverines counterattacked with deadly precision. The speed of Ebbett turned a two-on-two into a two-on-one, as the centerman received a pass from right winger Gajic before cutting across the crease and slipping a low backhander past Ayers to make it 2-0.
“College hockey’s all about momentum: When the home team gets it, they have a huge advantage,” Berenson said. “That just never happened tonight.”
On a power play at 12:06, Gajic got the puck near the left-wing dot and passed across to defenseman Eric Werner at the top of the opposite faceoff circle. Werner shot, and — oddly — Ayers tried to stack his pads at the long-range shot but missed it, giving the Wolverines a decisive 3-0 lead.
Trying desperately to get his team back in the game, Steve Saviano had a pair of chances in the 14th minute, and Montoya was almost caught out of the net at 17:10, but nothing came of it.
The same pattern held in the third. A minute in, UNH had a great chance with a Preston Callander shot, followed by a Justin Aikins rebound bid. On the ensuing rush, seconds later, Kaleniecki raced in on the left wing and buried the rebound of his own shot to make it 4-0.
“They’re strong on the stick; they’re quick,” Umile said. “That was no surprise to us. We talked about this before the game: They had an up-and-down season with 26 wins. My gosh, I’d like to have an up-and-down season with 26 wins. That’s what beat us today, their speed and strength — especially with their sticks.”
The UNH faithful finally got a overdue chance to unload that fish at 13:46, when Nathan Martz one-timed home a pass from behind the goal line to make it 4-1.
While UNH finishes its 2003-04 season with a 20-15-6 record, Michigan (27-13-2) looks to advance to its fourth Frozen Four in a row against Boston College in the Northeast Regional final at 4 p.m. on Sunday.