DURHAM, N.H. — Entering Saturday’s NCAA quarterfinal, New Hampshire had the home ice and the momentum from winning Hockey East, while St. Lawrence had been humbled humbled by getting blown out 4-0 by the Wildcats back in November, humbled by getting run over by Dartmouth 7-3 in the ECACHL final last Sunday.
But the best programs learn from their failures and find their way in March, and that has become a St. Lawrence trademark. For the fourth season in a row, the Saints (29-7-3) are going to the Frozen Four, having turned the tables on the Wildcats (28-4-5) and defeated them 6-2 at the Whittemore Center on Saturday.
The games’ biggest play came in the final minute of the first period. Both teams had been trading punches. The Saints had a 2-1 lead, and the Wildcats were controlling play in the offensive zone with an eye for the game-tying score. St. Lawrence coach Paul Flanagan had gambled keeping his top line out for an extra shift in the final minute, and the Saints struggled to clear the puck.
But one extra effort by St. Lawrence senior Chelsea Grills changed everything. She blocked a shot from the point with her shin-pad, and took off the other way with the puck as the clock ticked down. She beat UNH goalie Melissa Bourdon on the breakaway for the 3-1 lead 3.2 seconds before the first intermission.
“I had my teammates telling, ‘You have time, you have time,’” Grills said. “I settled down, and I had to put it in the net. It was a good team effort.”
“For her to gut it out when she didn’t have anything left in the tank, to go the length of the ice and bury it, that makes it more impressive, that’s what desire is all about,” Flanagan said. “And those are the kind of goals and effort in a game like this that you can’t praise enough.”
The second period was the Carson Duggan showcase for the Saints. About midway through the second period, Duggan was left free in front to convert a feed coming from junior Sabrina Harbec behind the net for the 4-1 lead. Sophomore Sam Faber scored to cut into the Saints’ lead, but Duggan buried a rebound off a Grills shot on the power play to restore the three-goal advantage.
Grills fed Harbec on a two-on-one midway through the third period to cap the scoring.
“It’s just a really disappointing loss because we didn’t put our best foot forward today, but on the other side of the table, St. Lawrence played a really smart game and executed exceptionally well, and we didn’t,” said UNH coach Brian McCloskey. “They beat us on special teams, they were very patient and for whatever reason we couldn’t settle down and be patient with them. Consequently, they got in behind us, they created some advantage plays and buried them.”
Flanagan thought one of the key adjustments the Saints made on the big ice sheet was that they forechecked one player and pulled back, taking away passes and creating turnovers. McCloskey felt UNH moved the puck out of the back end as poorly as he had seen all season, though he credited much of that to the higher level of competition brought by the Saints on this day.
UNH had the better run of opportunities in the opening minutes, but only the Saints drew a power play from them. They cashed in when a shot from the point by freshman defenseman Britni Smith rebounded off Bourdon and deflected off Marianne Locke into the net for the 1-0 lead just under eight minutes into the game.
“Getting a lead against a team like this in their rink is really important. You could feel it on our bench, that it alleviated any anxiety,” Flanagan said.
New Hampshire’s top line, led by center Sam Faber, came storming back. Taking a wide-angle shot off a rebound from a powerful rush into the zone, Faber buried the puck into the far upper corner to tie the game. Faber converted a similar shot to score UNH’s second goal in the second period, with assists from Kelly Payton and Steph Holmes.
“On the first one, I was all alone in front and thought about going behind the net because I didn’t think I could score, and I just kind of flipped it in, and luckily it went in,” Faber said. “On the second one Holmes and Paton did a great job cycling, and it just popped out. I took it to the front Usually when I shoot it too hard it goes over the net, so I got a new technique there.”
St. Lawrence took the lead for good at 13:14 of the first period, when a fortunate bounce gave Annie Guay a clear look at the net from beyond the circles, and she powered the shot passed Bourdon for the 2-1 advantage.
St. Lawrence controlled the ever-important categories of special teams and goaltending. The Saint power play went 2-for-3, while UNH went 0-for-4. Bourdon stopped 15 of 21 for the Wildcats.
Junior Meaghan Guckian, who sat in lieu of Jess Moffat for all non-consolation NCAA games the last two seasons, stopped 26 of 28 given her opportunity.
“Guckian didn’t have to stand on her head all night, but boy was she there when we needed her,” Flanagan said.
Despite never having won a conference title, St. Lawrence is now the only program other than Minnesota to reach four straight Frozen Fours.
“We got on the bus last Sunday pretty disappointed, but in the back of our minds, there was a chance to redeem ourselves for what happened last week,” Flanagan said. “We blew an opportunity to win the championship for our league, but there’s another one up for grabs.”