BOSTON — New Hampshire lost top goal scorer Leah Craig and top-scoring defenseman Martine Garland to the Canadian U-22 program for three games this week, but because of the Wildcats’ unmatched depth, it was impossible to discern their absence from any of the final scores.
The No. 2 Wildcats (15-2-0, 7-1-0 Hockey East) overcame a gritty early-game effort by Boston University (9-9-3, 4-6-2) and ultimately pulled away for a 5-1 win that extended their winning streak to 10. UNH outscored quality opponents Dartmouth, Colgate, and BU by a combined total of 16-2 this week — as impressive a stretch as the team has had all season.
UNH’s depth stood out in contrast to No. 1 St. Lawrence, who played two overtime games against St. Cloud State and split under the duress of its U-22 absences. Given that the Wildcats own a head-to-head win over No. 3 Wisconsin, they stand a good chance of moving to No. 1 in Monday’s USCHO.com poll.
“Everyone else on the team, we didn’t want to step back, we wanted to keep going with the way the season is going,” UNH top scorer Jennifer Hitchcock said of the team’s response to the player departures. “Other people stepped up, now we’re ready for them to come back in and continue playing the way we were.”
Hitchcock herself has stepped up the most. The UNH sophomore led all scorers with two goals and an assist, and she has scored 12 points over a five-game streak of multiple-point games.
“She’s been on fire,” UNH coach Brian McCloskey said of Hitchcock. “She’s been a scorer her whole life. She’s so strong around the net. She really shoots the puck hard. She’s been getting a ton of shots, and if you get a lot of shots, you’re going to score a lot of goals.”
Hitchcock netted the game’s biggest goal, a shorthanded game-winner, at 6:46 of the second period. Boston University gave the Wildcats one of the toughest first periods they faced all season, and there was more of the same early in the second, until Hitchcock’s goal shifted momentum.
On the pivotal score, Hitchcock received a pass through the neutral zone from defenseman Amy McLaughlin, broke in past the last defenseman, and put the puck on frame as captain Nicole Hekle crashed the net.
“It was a great pass,” Hitchcock said. “I just skated hard and tried to put it on net for Nikki to come in for a rebound, and it fell through I guess.”
Hitchcock also provided the crucial assist from behind the net to freshman Sam Faber in front for the game’s first goal with 3:31 to go in the first period. Faber finished with three points, as her line with Hitchcock and Sadie Wright-Ward clicked well all week. McCloskey has a tough choice to make as to whether to put Leah Craig back on that line in Hitchcock’s place next week.
Shannon Clement’s power play goal at 2:14 of third period on a rebound off a Amy McLaughlin shot gave UNH a 3-1 lead and some breathing room. BU could not capitalize on its opportunities down the stretch, and another goal by Hitchcock with 3:12 to go and a power play goal by Lindsay Hansen in the final minute rounded out the scoring.
“We made the game hard for them for two periods, and then their talent and experience and ability took over in the third period,” said BU coach Brian Durocher. “They take advantage of something and boom, it’s in the net. Maybe we didn’t do that when we had a couple chances.”
Even though the final box score today looked similar to BU’s 5-0 loss at UNH on Nov. 30, this game was a lot closer. The Terriers were as successful any team had been in preventing the Wildcats from cycling the puck in the first period, and that showed with the 1-1 tie at the first intermission.
“There was some tremendous progress,” Durocher said, comparing the two games. “On their big rink we had a little more ground to cover, it really is a big obstacle. Here you have less size to think and you have the opportunity to do a little more stick-checking and close-checking. I was impressed with the way our kids moved the puck. They went D-to-D with it. They got their legs going. We played with a lot of poise.”
McCloskey was just as impressed with his team’s opponent, who he felt looked fresher than his own team early in the game.
“I thought the defense were very patient, they weren’t turning the puck over, forcing it in the wrong places, and so we weren’t really getting a lot of turnovers,” McCloskey said. “They were doing a good job coming out of their zone.”
BU had about as many quality scoring chances as UNH in the first period, but only Gina Kearns broke through on a breakaway set up by a turnover and then a pass by Sarah Russell.
“Gina’s play was a tremendous individual effort, and she’s done that a number of times this year,” Durocher said.
That goal was the only blemish for Bourdon who stopped 11 of 12 shots. She saw her shutout streak end at 121:19 and started progress on a new one. Allyse Wilcox stopped 23 for BU.
UNH’s next game is at home Wednesday night against No. 9 Harvard, who the Wildcats topped 3-0 to close out December.
BU next plays Connecticut next Sunday, as the Terriers look to continue their progress in their inaugural season. The Terriers are aiming for the No. 4 seed and last Hockey East postseason tournament berth, and a win over UConn one of four teams with a winning league record, would go a long way towards achieving that goal.
“They’ve exceeded my expectations to be 9-9-3 at this point of the season, and that they have represented themselves well almost every game is what’s most important,” Durocher said. “A couple times the shots have been one-sided but we’ve still competed and played hard. The [first games against] UNH and Providence got a little away from us, but we redeemed ourselves today and played much better, and Providence, we came back and beat them.”