DURHAM, N.H. — In the words of New Hampshire sophomore Nicole Hekle, yesterday’s 5-1 loss at Providence was embarrassing, especially since the Friars had also humbled the Wildcats in the Hockey East final last season. This afternoon, however, UNH left no room for embarrassment.
Hekle scored the game-winner to break a 1-1 tie at 2:26 of the third period, and UNH (16-5-4, 8-1-2 Hockey East) held on for the 2-1 victory in the rematch against the Friars (13-7-4, 8-1-1).
Hekle also assisted on the first goal of an efficient offensive effort for the Wildcats. They scored their two goals on just 15 shots, and Hekle’s goal was their only shot of the third period.
“Today was a gut check for us and we battled our butts off for the win,” Hekle said. “Our team knew what we were up and against and how important it was. That was a big difference.”
On the game-winner, captain Stephanie Jones took the puck off the boards from freshman Leah Craig and had a two-on-one with Hekle. She heard Hekle coming down into the opposite faceoff circle, passed off, and Hekle one-timed the puck top shelf past Providence goalie Amy Thomas.
One would think that limiting UNH to three goals in two games would be enough for a sweep, but it wasn’t on this afternoon as the Friars’ struggled to beat UNH goalie Melissa Bourdon. Providence’s freshmen came up big for them with three goals yesterday in the absence of third-leading scorer Sonny Watrous, but not this time.
“The difference was UNH was able to get the puck in the air,” said Providence coach Bob Deraney. “In tight, they deposited and we didn’t. That’s two-fold, a credit to Bourdon because she played so well, and one of the things we need to work on is scoring goals. You’ve got to exploit those opportunities when they give you them.”
The defensive effort was still an obvious positive for the Friars throughout the weekend. Deraney had pinpointed it as a target for improvement in recent weeks.
“I thought we played really good fundamental defense today,” Deraney said. “I think both teams did. There was a lot of body being played out there, but it was within the guidelines of body contact and not checking.”
The Friars won the special teams battle yesterday, but today it was even as the Wildcats and Friars exchanged power play goals in the second period leading to a 1-1 tie entering the third period. UNH struck first at 12:55 when Hekle won the puck at the end line and passed across the crease to Jones for an easy finish.
UNH let Providence back into the game by taking two penalties a minute apart late into the second period. At 17:13, shortly after the first penalty expired, Thatcher nudged the puck from the top of the crease to the corner, where Zimmerman had the right angle to bury it under the crossbar. The Wildcats were suddenly even in a game they felt they were controlling.
UNH improved to 4-0 against Providence in Hockey East history on its home ice surface, a day after dropping to 1-4 on the Friars’ smaller sheet at Schneider Arena. The larger ice played to UNH’s advantage in speed and against the Friars’ desire to play an aggressive forechecking game.
“With our speed, they can’t stop us at home,” Jones said. “A lot of teams can’t unless they’re a fast team as well. Player to player we’re faster and we use that to our advantage. Their D all really pinch, and if we get in a footrace, we’re going to win nine times out of 10. It’s tough for them, and it’s a big change. They’re always aggressive especially in that small rink. They’re always in our face.”
Both Thomas and Bourdon were on their game today for the most part. Jones had a clean breakaway from the blue line five minutes into the game, but Thomas was with her every step of the way. Bourdon’s toughest tests often came on Providence’s shorthanded opportunities. She stopped 24 of 25 shots, a day after allowing five goals in the tight confines at Schneider Arena.
“We’ve grown comfortable over the months in our rink, so it’s definitely different,” Bourdon said. “Our team feeds on speed and in that rink, we don’t have as many opportunities to take off with the puck, so you get shut down really quickly. It was a big difference and we were happy to come home today.”
As January ends, UNH and Providence have decided little in the hunt for the Hockey East regular season title. The teams meet again for a home-and-home at the end of February when the level of play is expected to be even higher. Watrous expects to be back for Providence, and UNH expects to be long over the flu bug that plagued the team entering this weekend.
“It’s such a wonderful series, and you know you’re going to see tremendous high-level women’s hockey being played,” Deraney said. “For the hockey connoisseur, it doesn’t get any better. Hockey is being played out there at a tremendously high level.”