NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — It may have gone down in the record books as win number 348, but to the coach and his team, it was two points and sole possession of first place.
Six different Wildcat players scored, and UNH helped its cause by scoring two shorthanded goals as No. 8 New Hampshire defeated Merrimack, 6-1, at J. Thom Lawler Arena.
Dick Umile recorded his 348th victory behind the UNH bench, surpassing the legendary Charlie Holt as the all-time leader in wins at New Hampshire.
“Its not about a record,” said Umile. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have coached a lot of games here.
“It’s been an honor to be a part of this program.
“I’m just proud to be associated with coach Holt,” added Umile, who was captain of the 1968-69 UNH team that was coached by Holt, a team that finished 22-6-1.
New Hampshire improved to 21-7-3 (14-3-2 Hockey East). The Wildcats jumped over Boston College for the top spot in the Hockey East standings with 30 points, one ahead of the Eagles. Merrimack fell to 8-22-2 (1-18-1) with its 10th straight loss.
Fresh off his five-goal, one-assist weekend against Massachusetts that earned him CCM Player of the Week honors, sophomore Jacob Micflikier continued his torrid pace with a goal and two assists. Fellow sophomore Daniel Winnik had a four-point night with a goal and three assists.
“We’ve been rolling pretty well lately, and tonight was about getting two points to get us into first (place)”, said Micflikier. “We’ve been paying attention to details. We’ve just been getting the puck out of the zone lately.”
For the third game out of the last four, Robbie Barker’s hustle helped get UNH on the board first.
With just 52 seconds gone in the first period, Barker intercepted a dump-in attempt by Merrimack and carried the puck over the Warriors’ blue line. He passed to fellow senior Justin Aikins, whose shot was saved by Warrior netminder Jim Healey.
But the speedy Micflikier was there to pounce on the rebound and send the puck just under the crossbar for a 1-0 UNH lead.
Aikins would get even with Healey later on in the period by backhanding a rebound of a shot by Winnik past Healey to make it 2-0 after one. The Wildcats outshot the Warriors 18-10 for the period.
Not lost in the UNH scoring onslaught was the goaltending of freshman Kevin Regan, who appears to have won the starting job for the Wildcats, and with good reason. Coming into the game, Regan led the nation in winning percentage with a 10-1 record.
Regan stopped several good Merrimack scoring chances in the opening stanza, including stops against captain Steve Crusco who went in on a partial breakaway, as well as fellow captain Bryan Schmidt, who sent a blast from the point that was turned away by the freshman goaltender.
Freshman Mike Radja scored his seventh goal of the season early in the second period on a play that was made by some great work by sophomore Josh Ciocco.
With freshman Craig Switzer in the penalty box for obstruction interference, Ciocco, playing some in-your-face penalty killing, intercepted a pass in the Warriors zone, made a couple of nice moves in front of a Merrimack defender, then got off a shot that was stopped by Healey. Radja alertly sped in for the rebound and put it home for the first of the Wildcats short handed tallies.
Less than a minute later, with Merrimack still on the power play, junior Brian Yandle shot a rocket as he flew over the Warriors’ blue line that hit nothing but twine to make it 4-0 UNH. It was Yandle’s ninth goal of the season.
“Another great game by our team. The two shorthanded goals were really big. That took some wind out of their sails,” said Umile.
Merrimack finally got one past Regan at 15:02 of the second period, as sophomore Matt Byrnes got his second goal of the year, with assists to freshman Hank Carisio and senior Schmidt.
Four minutes later, Winnik scored his 12th of the year on a redirect of a Micflikier shot.
Freshman defenseman Brad Flaishans, from the hockey hotbed of Glendale, Arizona, finished out the scoring in the third period, sending a knuckleball of a shot that trickled past a stunned Healey.
The win puts UNH in position for a fight to the finish for the Hockey East regular-season crown. However, the Wildcats face an uphill battle: a game February 19 at Beanpot finalist Northeastern, and then home-and-home series with No. 2 Boston College and No. 11 Boston University.
“It seems like every year it comes down to these last few games,” said Aikins.
But it was this game, on a rainy Wednesday night in North Andover, Mass., that took center stage for the Wildcats, as the former pupil and team captain moved ahead of the man who was formerly the greatest coach in the history of a long-successful New Hampshire program.
Asked if he remembered his first game as head coach of the Wildcats, Umile pondered a minute, then chuckled.
“I know it was against Vermont,” he said. “I can remember it by players, not the year that it happened.”
For the record, Coach, it was October 26, 1990, a 5-4 win at Vermont.
New Hampshire travels to Northeastern on Saturday, February 19. Merrimack plays the Huskies one night earlier, also at Matthews Arena in Boston. Both games are at 7 p.m.