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Freshman Class: Higgins’ Hat Trick Keys BU Explosion

— If the first period of Friday’s NCAA East Regional semifinal represented a glorious first trip to the ball for the Cinderella team, the clock struck midnight, repeatedly, in the second period for Nebraska-Omaha.

After scoring the game’s first goal and coming out of the first period tied at 1, the Mavericks surrendered six second-period goals to No. 1 Boston University on the way to a 9-2 shellacking. Terrier freshman Chris Higgins led the way with the fastest-ever hat trick in NCAA regional history, while freshman linemates Brandon Yip and Jason Lawrence dished in three assists and two assists respectively.

uno bu 032506 weston Freshman Class: Higgins Hat Trick Keys BU Explosion

BU sophomore Ryan Weston puts one past UNO netminder Jerad Kaufmann (photos: Melissa Wade).

Bryan Ewing added two goals and an assist, while Terrier defenseman Sean Sullivan matched his three-point efforts with a trio of helpers.

“In the first periods, we had our hands full,” Terrier coach Jack Parker said. “We played them pretty well, and they were playing very well. Both teams had great opportunities. They get up one-nothing, and we get a pretty power-play goal to tie the game and that gave us a real boost.

“I thought the biggest goal of the game was they make it 3-2 and we immediately come back and scored to make it 4-2 — I don’t know how many seconds later, but it was pretty quick. Then it opened up.”

For UNO coach Mike Kemp, a night that started with more than a flake of promise ended up in an avalanche.

“That wasn’t the way we wanted our initial venture into the NCAA tournament to turn out,” Kemp said. “It wasn’t our expectation, but it is what it is. My hat’s off to Boston University; I thought that they did an excellent job in every phase of the game. Their forecheck really kept us back on our heels. They really dominated the game down low and took advantage of their opportunities.

“They’re a No. 1 seed for a very, very good reason.”

In the early going, Nebraska-Omaha didn’t seem too starry-eyed for a first-time NCAA tournament team. Two minutes in, Kaleb Betts sprang Brandon Scero with a long cross-ice pass for a right-wing rush that forced Terrier Kevin Schaeffer to draw a penalty at 2:58.

The Mavericks made BU pay for that just 34 seconds later. Looking solid with the man-advantage, Jason Krischuk passed out to Betts at the right point. The resulting shot hit the post on BU goalie John Curry’s stick side and ended up behind the netminder in the crease, where sophomore Bill Thomas banged it home for his team-leading 27th goal.

In an omen of things to come, Higgins made a great backhand pass to set up Kevin Schaeffer at 12:10, only to have freshman goalie Jerad Kaufmann make a nice glove save.

Then — just when Terrier fans might have been getting a little nervous — BU tied it on a power-play goal at 18:24. Bryan “Boomer” Ewing clanged a shot off the inside of the post at the 18-minute mark, and UNO never did get the badly needed clear. Pete MacArthur passed from the right point to Sean Sullivan in the left-wing faceoff circle, and Sullivan crossed to Ewing for the tap-in.

That set the stage for a second period that must have caused a few cases of carpal tunnel syndrome in the press box. The outburst started at 4:53, when freshman Brandon Yip outmuscled a defender behind the Mav net and popped it in front. Jason Lawrence kicked it, and Higgins swept it in home with a backhander.

Just under three minutes later, BU made it 3-1 when the rebound of a John Laliberte shot kicked out to Dan Spang at the left point. The senior defenseman fired a high shot that beat Kaufmann on the glove side.

Fourteen seconds later, UNO made it a one-goal game when a 25-foot shot appeared to change direction in the slot, fooling Curry. Freshman Tomas Klempa was credited with the goal.

But 30 seconds after that, BU made it 4-2. Higgins got the puck on the goal line and seemed surprised to find himself unmarked at close range for a high wrister that went in glove side. Twenty-one seconds after that, Pete MacArthur raced in on the right wing and took a long look before crossing sharply toward his two linemates near the crease. Roche was credited with the goal at 8:49.

“That might have been the turning point of the game,” Kemp said. “They went up 3-1, and we rebounded and scored … but then we gave it right back.

“All of a sudden you’re down 5-2 and 6-2. It snowballs. Certainly, on the bench we sagged very dramatically after that point.”

Just 85 more seconds elapsed before Higgins scored again on a gem. He skated in on the right wing, crossed to the left, and then let loose a gorgeous backhander against the grain for his first collegiate hat trick, the fastest in NCAA regional history and the fourth-fastest in NCAA tournament history.

That made it hard to believe that they were the freshmen’s first three goals since his highlight-reel score in the Beanpot semifinal back on February 6.

“It just felt good to get that first goal since I haven’t scored in a while, and the other two followed,” Higgins said.

Then fans had to wait almost seven minutes for the next goal, when Ewing buried a rebound on a power-play slapshot. It was the first time BU had scored six goals in a period since a Beanpot semifinal against Harvard in 1997.

Parker acknowledged that his team made tactical adjustments between periods but noted that they had no direct relationship to the offensive explosion. “It had nothing to do with all the goals that we got. … They were jamming us at the blue line, and we were turning it over and giving them two-on-ones, three-on-twos. We tried to get the puck in deep and make plays behind their defensemen.”

Kemp believed that BU’s play down low and superior physicality were the difference in the second-period scorefest.

“We just came up and had a lot of puck luck,” Sean Sullivan said. “It was an odd occurrence.”

Just as he had after the previous Friday’s outburst against New Hampshire, Parker referred to the explosion as “surreal.”

That made the third period academic for the two universities. Fourth-line winger Ryan Weston got his first goal of the season, tipping a Tom Morrow shot at 8:52. The Mavericks started getting chippy, and junior Alex Nikiforuk got ejected for hitting from behind at 9:48.

On the resulting major, Ryan Weston made a nice cross-ice pass to linemate Brian McGuirk at the far post to make it 9-2. Both coaches then pulled their starting goalies for the rest of the game.

“You look for balance on your team, and they have three-line depth,” Kemp said of the Terriers. “We have four lines that can score, but we did not counteract and make them play defense tonight. We turned the puck over too many times, and they took advantage in transition.”

While the season comes to an end for Nebraska-Omaha (20-15-6), BU rides its nation-best winning streak of seven games and unbeaten streak of 10 into the East Regional final Saturday night.

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