BURLINGTON, Vt. — Most observers felt a Dartmouth-Vermont playoff series would be tight. If Friday’s Game 1 of the ECACHL quarterfinal series between the two was any indication, no one is surprised.
Lee Stempniak’s game winner, midway through the third, capped the Big Green’s second comeback of the night and gave it a 3-2 win over the Catamounts to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-3 series at Gutterson Fieldhouse.
Both Stempniak and Mike Ouellette tallied a goal and assist to lead Dartmouth (20-11-2) to victory.
“They are a tremendous, tremendous team,” Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon said. “If you’re gonna give Ouellette, Stempniak, and those guys a lot of room out there, they are gonna make plays.”
“We just didn’t play well,” Sneddon said. “We picked a bad time to not play well. Our defensemen had a tough time getting the puck out of the zone, and Dartmouth got more shots on with people in front of the net.”
Vermont (19-12-4) took the lead early on the power play, when Ben Lovejoy went off, just eight seconds into the first. The Cats made the Green pay as Andy Corran popped his fourth of the year past Dartmouth goalie Dan Yacey (18 saves). Slavomir Tomko started the play from the corner. He put the puck in front, where Corran found the net at 1:55.
The early goal did not faze Dartmouth. The visitors controlled play in the opening stanza from that point foreword. Vermont’s Joe Fallon (26 saves) had to be on his toes stopping 12 shots that came his way. That wasn’t enough to keep the Big Green from knotting the game at one, though.
Stempniak’s soft shot from the left circle was tipped nicely by Nick Johnson and caught Fallon by surprise, slipping through his legs at 12:49. The goal was Johnson’s 17th of a stellar freshman campaign and was assisted by Ouellette.
Fallon helped the Cats hold the lead until then, stopping David Jones twice, once on a breakaway getting a piece with his glove seven minutes in. Just seconds before that, Eric Przepiorka made a defender look silly with a flashy move but fired it high and wide. Late in the period, Przepiorka had another great opportunity to pull even on a break but Fallon stoned him with 2:10 left.
A minute and a half into the second, with Stempniak already in the box, a shot off the back boards in the Dartmouth zone bounced to Jeff Corey. He tried to stuff it in. A scrum ensued and a Dartmouth player fell into his goaltender. With Yacey rolling around inside the cage, Torrey Mitchell was nailed with a major penalty for slashing.
Vermont’s penalty kill did well with the major, and Jarrett Sampson helped out, committing an infraction of his own evening up the manpower for two minutes.
Seconds after Stempniak came out of the box, Ryan Gunderson at the left-wing boards found Scott Mifsud alone in the right circle. Mifsud had all the time in the world and didn’t miss, firing a wrister past Yacey at 2:48 for his 21st goal and Vermont’s 2-1 advantage.
Yacey was forced to make two tough saves on Joey Gasparini. First, he shut his five-hole, with 14:45 on the clock, and the Grand Forks, N.D., native cutting to the net, and then, as Gasparini picked up a lose puck in front, wheeled, and fired into the goalie’s chest.
But Vermont never did get the all-important third tally for a two-goal cushion.
Ouellette evened the score again at two with a rocket shot past Fallon. The play began as defenseman Mike Hartwick carrying into the UVM zone. He dished it to Ouellette at 5:59 of the period.
Sampson took a hitting after the whistle penalty, as the period expired so UVM had a power play and fresh ice to work with in the third. The Cats could not put the go-ahead goal home. Instead, after ten minutes of play in the third, Stempniak redirected a Sean Offers shot past Fallon for the win.
Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet was pleased with the outcome, but he knows his team’s work is not, by any means, finished.
“It’s a good win for us, but its only one win,” he said. “We just gotta keep playing hard, but it was a good win for us. It’s a tough place to play.”
Vermont looks to even the series Saturday at 7 p.m.