DURHAM, N.H. — The Hockey East playoffs appear to be the cure for what ailed New Hampshire during the regular season’s final three weekends.
The Wildcats went just 1-4-1 in that stretch, stumbling to three straight losses entering the postseason and backing into the league’s regular-season title, but they reverted back to their dominant early-season form with a solid 4-0 victory over eighth-seeded Providence in quarterfinal action on Thursday night.
New Hampshire’s top line of center Mike Radja and wingers Jacob Micflikier and Brett Hemingway combined for seven points and goalie Kevin Regan made 42 saves for his second career playoff shutout against Providence to put the Wildcats just one win away from next weekend’s semifinals at Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden.
No. 4 New Hampshire will have a chance to sweep the Friars in the best-of-three series for the second straight season at the Whittemore Center in Friday’s 7 p.m. rematch, capturing Game 1 by the identical score of the 2006 opener between the two teams and erasing a bit of the sting from the 7-1 hammering the Friars put on the Wildcats in Providence on Feb. 24.
“We finished first in the league for a reason,” Hemingway said. “We obviously were embarrassed the way we played them last time. It was good to get back out there and be able to play them again.”
“It’s a good win for us after the previous weekend,” New Hampshire head coach Dick Umile said. “We’re happy with the win. It’s one step. It’s one game at a time.”
Regan finished second in the league in save percentage during the regular season behind Boston University’s John Curry, but he struggled down the stretch. The low point for Regan came in Providence during the last meeting between the two teams, with the Friars pumping in three goals in the opening period to chase Regan on their way to handing New Hampshire its worst loss of the regular season.
Thursday marked the first time Regan has held an opponent to less than two goals since a 4-1 win at Merrimack on Feb. 10, as he notched his second postseason blanking of the Friars in three starts.
“When you get a lot of shots it’s just easy to get into a rhythm,” Regan said. “Sometimes it’s tougher being down at the other end when you only get 20.”
“He’s been great for us all year,” Hemingway said. “Even the couple of games that we’ve lost here we don’t blame him whatsoever — he’s been strong for us all season. It’s just another example of why he’s one of the best goalies in the league.”
From the Providence perspective, the game’s turning point came midway through the second period when an apparent goal by Cody Wild was disallowed after he was ruled to have kicked in Jon Rheault’s rebound on a two-on-one break.
The Friars would have cut their 2-0 deficit in half had Wild’s goal stood, and Providence head coach Tim Army was visibly upset with the decision on the visitors’ bench while discussing it with referee Tim Benedetto. New Hampshire made it all the more painful for the Friars 39 seconds later when Micflikier deflected home Hemingway’s aerial pass from the right wing past Chris Mannix to make it 3-0.
“I thought the puck just went off Cody’s skate,” Army said. “I didn’t think he kicked it. I had a chance to look at it (during) the second intermission and I think it came out and hit him in the skate as he was turning. I thought it was a goal, I still think it’s a goal, but the decision is made.”
Providence committed a pair of costly defensive mistakes in the opening period and New Hampshire, the league’s top scoring offense during the regular season at 3.62 goals per game, capitalized on each one for a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes. The Wildcats scored on their first shot of the game 4:25 in, as Friars’ goalie Tyler Sims lost possession of the puck behind his own net and Radja set up Hemingway all alone in the slot to give the hosts the lead.
New Hampshire made it a two-goal cushion when Peter LeBlanc muscled his way out of the right wing corner to the front of the cage and left Bobby Butler with an easy tap-in at the left post at 11:43.
“They capitalized on a couple of our mistakes and were able to get up 2-0,” Army said. “That’s what makes New Hampshire so dangerous — they’re so opportunistic.”
Sims was pulled in favor of Mannix before the start of the second period, marking the fourth time this season that Army has removed Sims from a game and allowed Mannix to finish. Sims made 59 saves in a 2-1 double-overtime loss to New Hampshire that ended Providence’s season last year in Game 2 of that series, but he might not get the chance to help the Friars rally from one game down this time around. Army refused to name a starter for Friday’s Game 2.
“I’ll take (Thursday night) and think about it,” Army said. “(Freshman Ryan) Simpson is ready to play too. It’s critical for us. It’s an elimination game for us.”
Ice Chips: New Hampshire wingers Brett Hemingway and Jacob Micflikier continued to torment Providence on Thursday night. The senior duo had combined for 29 career points coming into the opener of the best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinals, and each notched a goal and an assist in the Wildcats’ 4-0 victory. Micflikier now leads active Hockey East players in playoff points with 15 — he was tied with Boston College center Brian Boyle at 13 entering Thursday. … A visit by the Friars to the Whittemore Center usually means success for New Hampshire, and Game 1 was no different. The Wildcats improved to 20-3-0 all-time against Providence at Towse Rink, including nine straight wins and a 13-1-0 mark in the last 14 meetings. The Friars’ last away win at New Hampshire came on March 12, 2004. … Next season’s Providence team should feel right at home when it visits the Whittemore Center, and that could change the Friars’ fortunes. Providence could have as many as six players on their roster who played junior hockey with the New Hampshire Monarchs, the state’s Eastern Junior Hockey League franchise. Forward Jon Rheault, defenseman Marc Bastarache and goaltender Ryan Simpson will be joined by incoming freshmen Eric Baier, Ian O’Connor and Rhode Island native Austin Mayer. The Monarchs repeated as EJHL regular-season champions by posting a league-best 78 points and are driving toward their second straight playoff title, which would be their third in four years.