DURHAM, N.H. — Wins like last night’s 2-1 victory over No. 6 Mercyhurst are what give New Hampshire confidence as a national championship contender. And Wildcat sophomore Sadie Wright-Ward is the kind of unique player that makes those wins possible.
In the final minute of a 1-1 game, Wright-Ward received the puck off the breakout and took it straight to the net with Laker defenders swarming around her. Neither Wright-Ward nor Laker goalie Laura Hosier know exactly how the puck got into the net, but all the matters for UNH (20-2-1) is that it did.
“We just went to the net, and somehow the puck ended up behind the line,” Wright-Ward said.
Hosier and Mercyhurst captain Samantha Shirley protested that the net had been dislodged before the goal, but to no avail, and the Lakers (16-7-2) suffered another disappointing narrow defeat against a top five team.
With the decisive goal, Wright-Ward extended her point-scoring streak to 11 games, and UNH’s unbeaten streak to 16 games. In addition to the game-winner, she led UNH with five shots, 16 faceoff wins, and 25 draws taken.
“Smart and heart,” said UNH coach Brian McCloskey, summing up what makes Wright-Ward special. “She’s one of the smartest hockey players I’ve ever coached, and she’s got a heart the size a lion. She’s got no fear. Most kids will worry about making mistakes, but Sadie doesn’t, Sadie is always thinking about ways to make something happen.”
Wright-Ward almost made something happen with four minutes to go in the first period, when she stole the puck shorthanded in the defensive zone, brought Hosier down with a nifty move, and hit the post. McCloskey believed that missed opportunity, as well as several others through the course of the night, contributed to Wright-Ward’s fire in the final minute.
Missed opportunities were almost the story of the night for the Wildcats, who outshot the Lakers 20-13 for the night. Mercyhurst struggled to adjust in its first game on the Olympic ice and never found its attacking rhythm until the third period, but UNH could only build a 1-0 lead at the second intermission. Lakers freshman Courtney Unruh deflected in an Ashley Pendleton shot from the point on the power play to tie the score with 13 minutes to go, and it was anyone’s game to win, despite the Wildcats’ dominance.
“Our team is a real energy team, feeding off the forecheck, and on this sheet, it’s really tough to do that,” Mercyhurst coach Mike Sisti said of his team’s initial struggles.
The Lakers were the first team all season to outshoot UNH in the first period, but the margin was just 5-3, indicative of both teams’ lackluster play. McCloskey thought his team was tight, knowing how important this game was to its NCAA prospects. Neither team had lost since November entering the night.
The Wildcats maintained a 13-8 advantage in total shots, despite the shots on goal disadvantage, as they struggled more in the offensive zone than the defensive zone.
“Our forwards were trying to be cute, instead of putting the puck deep and putting it behind them and creating footraces, which is what we’ve done all year,” McCloskey said.
He added that his team needed to be more patient against a well-coached team like Mercyhurst.
“Our kids really stopped them from having a run-and-gun type of game, which I think is more their style,” Sisti said.
In the second period, UNH found its game while Mercyhurst was still adjusting, and the result was a 13-1 Wildcat shot advantage. The only Laker shot on goal came with six minutes left in the period when Pendleton fired the puck straight off a faceoff win in the offensive zone.
“Second period seems to be one of our strong periods anyway, but we just decided we had to play with some urgency and make stuff happen,” said UNH sophomore Jennifer Hitchcock.
Hitchcock finally put UNH on the board just after the game’s halfway point, when she received a long pass from Martine Garland at the offensive blue line for the breakaway, and beat Hosier with her backhand to the far side.
But that was all the scoring UNH could get in its period of total domination. Either the Wildcats could not bury their opportunities, or Hosier came up big. Her 18-save performance was more impressive than the stat sheet would suggest.
“The game really got away from us in the second because we didn’t bury them,” McCloskey said. “I thought we should have knocked them out, we could have gone up two or three, and we didn’t.”
Mercyhurst was particularly impressive killing all six UNH power plays. On some of them, the Wildcats were held without a shot a goal. When UNH got its looks, Hosier was at her best.
“Teams are really preparing for us on the power play now,” McCloskey said of his No. 1 ranked unit. ” I thought we got the looks we wanted, we just didn’t put it in or move it to the right spot. We didn’t bury some back door chances that were right there.”
Despite its struggles, Mercyhurst was still in the game. It was very much a role reversal for the Lakers, who had only been outshot by Minnesota this season. On occasion, they have dominated possession of the puck but let the other team stay in the game. Now Mercyhurst thrived in its uncharacteristic role.
“Late they realized, we’re not going to get a lot of opportunities, we just have to make the most of them,” Sisti said.
The Lakers got more opportunities in the third period when they outshot UNH 7-4, and they scored on their only power play opportunity after the first period. They looked dangerous every time they put the puck on net.
Mercyhurst came inches away from a last-minute lead of its own, when Stefanie Bourbeau unleashed a powerful shot from the left faceoff circle that ricocheted off the far post. UNH gathered the rebound, broke out the puck, put it on Wright-Ward’s stick, and the rest is history.
UNH captain Nicole Hekle, a player McCloskey believes is snakebitten offensively, was the dominant force on the forecheck that kept the puck in the Lakers zone for most of the remaining 45 seconds.
The victory affirmed UNH’s case for one of four home ice berths for the NCAA tournament in March, while the defeat all but ended the Lakers chances. Mercyhurst is still in good position for one of eight tournament berths, however, and a rematch in March is within the realm of possibility.
Mercyhurst resumed its nonconference schedule Saturday at Boston College, another top Hockey East opponent. The Wildcats host No. 10 Providence, their perennial nemesis in the hunt for the league title.