DURHAM, N.H. — Notice to the remaining teams left in the 2005 Hockey East playoffs: Reports of the demise of the New Hampshire hockey program have been greatly exaggerated.
Senior Justin Aikins scored two goals, and junior Jeff Pietrasiak stopped all 29 shots he faced, as New Hampshire completed a two-game sweep of Northeastern, 4-0, in their best-of-3 quarterfinal series at the Whittemore Center.
Sophomores Daniel Winnik and Jacob Micflikier each had two assists to help the UNH cause.
Despite stumbling into the Hockey East playoffs by going 0-2-2 in their last four games to end the regular season, the Wildcats were firing on all cylinders during the two-game set. Coupled with Thursday night’s 6-1 victory, UNH outscored the Huskies 10-1, recording three power-play goals while holding Northeastern 0-11 with the man advantage.
Northeastern fell to 15-18-5 (10-11-4 Hockey East), and undoubtedly saw the end of its season with the quarterfinal defeat. New Hampshire improved to 24-9-5 (16-5-4 Hockey East). With the win, UNH advances to the Hockey East semifinals at the FleetCenter in Boston for the fourth consecutive year.
“This was a really good weekend for us. We played well again tonight. Jeff (Pietrasiak) made some key saves for us tonight. We played solid hockey the whole weekend against a really good team. Now we move on to the next round,” said New Hampshire coach Dick Umile.
Pietrasiak was somewhat of a surprise starter, getting the nod for the first time in the last 10 UNH games.
“It was great to come out here tonight and do exactly what we wanted to do,” said Pietrasiak. “We’ve been to the FleetCenter every year that I’ve been here, winning it my freshman year. It felt good to get back in there tonight. I just worked hard in practice. It is tough to not play.
“It was nice to get ahead (in the game). We hadn’t done that in a while.”
Indeed, coming into the game, UNH had trailed heading into the locker room after the first period in each of the past three home games.
Friday night was somewhat of an improvement for Umile’s club, as they at least escaped the opening stanza deadlocked at 0-0. Pietrasiak was on his game early, stopping a bid by Northeastern senior captain and Hockey East scoring champion Jason Guerriero, who raced in alone. Pietrasiak would foil Guerriero again later on in the period.
New Hampshire looked to have scored early on in the first period.
Freshman Matt Fornataro sent a pass through the crease to Winnik, who had a wide open net to shoot at. But his shot hit the crossbar.
Umile must have been thinking “Here we go again,” as the Wildcats had several good scoring chances early on in the game, only to once again come away empty handed, as was the case in the previous three home games.
But as they did Friday night, UNH put the game away early and often in the second period.
Micflikier did a great job in getting and keeping the puck in the Northeastern zone, nudging the puck enough to get it to Winnik past a Huskies defender. Winnik found an open Aikins streaking in from the blue line, and he wasted no time in sending it home for his 8th goal of the year.
Just 15 seconds later, the Wildcats struck again, as senior Preston Callander put home the rebound of a Sean Collins shot past Northeastern senior netminder Keni Gibson, and suddenly it was 2-0 UNH.
Winnik almost made it 3-0 as he was sent in alone, but his shot went over the net.
Less than five minutes later, though, Aikins made sure when he clanged one in off the post.
“Justin is one of the most talented players we’ve had here. I told him tonight, ‘You’re a goal-scorer.’ He tries to pass too much sometimes,” said Umile.
Added Aikins, “It’s been a little bit frustrating lately. Tonight we talked about how important it was to get out to a lead, and once we did, we were able to sustain that lead.”
NU didn’t give up, however, and Pietrasiak had to come up with big saves on Windham, New Hampshire’s Chuck Tomes, as well as junior Steve Sanders. Towards the end of the period, he had to make back-to-back gems on attempts by freshman Jimmy Russo.
“UNH all year has been a very opportunistic team against us,” said Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder.
“You have to give credit where credit is due,” added Crowder. “They are a very, very good hockey team.
“Their top two lines are as good as any two lines in the nation.”
But it was more Crowder’s reaction which garnered the attention of the media after a question from one of the scribes.
When asked about what it meant to have coached seniors like Guerriero, Gibson and Tim Judy, and what they meant to the Huskies’ program, Crowder started to get choked up.
“All I can say is, ‘thank you’ to those guys,” said Crowder, fighting back tears. “The wars that they battled through these last couple of years …”
At that point, Crowder had to stop and lean back in his chair, putting his hand to his face, the tears no longer controllable. After a few more seconds, Crowder said “I have to apologize,” to which one writer said, “No need to apologize.”
“All good things must come to an end, I guess,” were Crowder’s last words as he thanked the press.
One couldn’t help but feel real empathy for the coach, who held back nothing in showing how much the seniors on his team meant in putting the Huskies program back on the map, if not in so many words. And his were not the only sniffles that could be heard in the UNH press room during his heartwrenching display of emotion. Perhaps never before had the Whittemore Center seen so powerful a postgame media briefing.
New Hampshire awaits the winner of the Providence-Boston University quarterfinal series, as the Friars shocked the Terriers in Game 1 Friday night, 4-1, to take a 1-0 lead in the series.