HANOVER, N.H. — No. 4 UNH dominated the better part of its fast-paced Dartmouth Thanksgiving Tournament matchup with No. 1 Wisconsin, but as in all great games, the Wildcats had to sweat down to the final seconds.
With a 2-1 deficit, a 6-on-4, and 23 seconds left, Wisconsin centered the puck off the draw in the New Hampshire zone. Two Wildcat players fell to the ice, giving the Badgers a temporary 6-on-2.
“I almost had a heart attack,” said UNH junior tri-captain Nicole Hekle.
Hekle’s nerves didn’t ease when Wisconsin sent the puck across the slot, and three Badgers had a shot at it. But none of them connected, and Hekle cleared the puck to the opposite corner. After one last futile rush by the Badgers (12-2), UNH (9-2) was a 2-1 winner, and Wisconsin’s 12-game win streak was over.
“That was a break right there for us,” UNH coach Brian McCloskey said of the final Badger attack. “It shouldn’t have gotten to that point, but it did. That’s hockey.”
The Wildcats were the deserving victors, as they outshot the Badgers 23-16 and allowed just three shots in the final frame. The tally of actual dangerous offensive chances on each side was even more lopsided. After escaping with a 4-3 win against Dartmouth yesterday, the Badgers did not have another comeback left in them.
“Our legs didn’t really come to us until about half way through the game,” said Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson. “We played back-to-back games, and we were a little bit tired. They were probably just a little better than us today.”
The 327 fans in attendance were treated to a clean and quick game. Just eight penalties were called, and there was a scarcity of sloppy icings and offsides.
“Great pace the whole game for 60 minutes,” McCloskey said. “Both teams can skate. No one was just throwing it away. Both teams were very patient with the puck.
After dominating most of the first period territorially, UNH went up 1-0 with five seconds to go on a highlight-reel, backhanded, top-shelf, breakaway finish by UNH’s Taylor Palazeti. The sophomore third-liner was set free on a blueline-to-blueline pass from defenseman Martine Garland.
Hekle extended UNH’s lead to 2-0 just 2:01 into the second period on the power play. The Wildcats’ attack was slow to develop, and UNH managed to lull the Wisconsin defense to sleep. Freshman Kacey Belamy fired the puck from the point across the slot, and Shannon Clement deflected it to Hekle for the easy finish on the doorstep.
Wisconsin’s lone goal came 5:06 into the third period on the power play, when captain Sharon Cole fed the puck from behind the net to Jinelle Zaugg at the faceoff dot. Using a UNH defender as screen, Zaugg powered the puck past UNH goalie Melissa Bourdon. Wisconsin finished 1-for-5 on the power play, while UNH was 1-for-3.
The Badgers struggled to string passes together against a UNH defense that outsized them and often outplayed them. Wisconsin occasionally created chances through individual talents — such as freshman Erika Lawler’s speed, junior Sara Bauer’s stickhandling, or defenseman Bobbi-Jo Slusar’s attacking — but UNH consistently limited team efforts.
“We didn’t let them use the center of the ice as much as I think they’re used to,” Hekle said. “We tried to limit their passes to each other, take away the lanes, and force them to do individual work, and obviously in a team game, that’s not going to work that well [for them], which is good for us.”
When the Wildcats had the puck, Wisconsin was hard-pressed to get it back. The veteran New Hampshire defense was not fazed by the Badger forecheck. When UNH got the puck deep, the forwards kept it there. All three Wildcat lines generated quality scoring chances.
“We handled the puck well,” McCloskey said. “The D had an outstanding game. They just moved it smart. They were very patient and poised. We didn’t give them a lot of easy transitional stuff. We put the puck deep and kept it simple.”
When Wisconsin did break through, Bourdon was poised. She stopped 15, while Meghan Horras was solid with 22 saves on the other end.
“Melissa didn’t have to make a lot of saves, but she had to make a couple big ones,” McCloskey said. “You’re going to have to do that against a team like that. You’re not shutting them down for three periods.”
The win was huge for the Wildcats in terms of establishing themselves as a national contender. They had yet to play a team in the USCHO Top Ten this season. The game’s importance was not lost on Hekle, who already had the team’s NCAA selection prospects in mind.
“As of this point right now, it was our biggest game of the year,” Hekle said. “We were very pumped. It was very good for our pairwise rankings. We don’t get to play any teams in the west other than Wisconsin. It was definitely huge for us.”
Won-loss records were not the first thing on Johnson’s mind, as he prepares his team for Bemidji State next week and No. 3 Minnesota-Duluth the following to close out the calendar year.
“Everyone wants to look at their wins and losses right now, but the most important thing is that you’re making strides with your club, you’re making habits that’ll make your team better,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go.”
And as the Badgers go on, UNH could be there waiting in March.
“I said to the Wisconsin kids, hopefully we see you again,” McCloskey said.