CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Call it academic. Call it a foregone conclusion.
Whichever you prefer, New Hampshire is on the brink of its sixth Hockey East regular season title thanks to a 2-0 victory over Boston College Friday night in front of a weather-reduced Kelley Rink crowd of 5,281.
The Wildcats victory over the second-place Eagles coupled with losses on Friday by Providence and Northeastern leave UNH needing just a single win or tie in its final five games to clinch the crown.
We have a great senior class that is playing as well as they have in four years, said UNH head coach Dick Umile when asked about his teams quest for another league title.
Friday night it was a group of those seniors that led the way, beginning with goaltender Kevin Regan, who stopped all 28 shots he faced to earn his third shutout of the season and pull him into a tie with former Northeastern netminder Bruce Racine for second on the all-time Hockey East wins list with 46.
Providing support for Regan was a Wildcat defense that stifled Boston College much of the night, particularly in the third period when the Eagles got just three grade A shots on goal.
Thats as well as weve played all year, said Umile. We didnt give [Boston College] any space to create offense, which they can do very well.
On the offensive front, the Wildcats got a second-period goal from forward Bobby Butler and a power play tally from senior blueliner Brad Flaishans late in the third to seal BCs fate.
The power play goal was a big turning point, said BC head coach Jerry York of the Flaishans goal with 6:36 remaining in the third. It was 1-0 and were still battling. It was just a rocket from the point.
The opening period was sluggish for both teams early on, despite New Hampshires Matt Fornataro breaking in alone on Eagles goaltender John Muse (27 saves) in the opening minute, forcing the rookie goaltender to make a tough save.
From there, neither team did much to muster offense, though each club clanged iron once. BCs Tim Kunes fired a low shot at 12:20 that Regan had a tough time handling, deflecting the puck over his shoulder and off the crossbar.
With 20 seconds remaining, UNHs Mike Radja cast a shot on iron as well, firing a tight-angle wrister off the right post on the power play.
The Wildcats, having gotten the better of the play in the scoreless period, held a 9-5 advantage in shots.
Early in the second, UNH finally broke the deadlock. Butler one-timed a James vanReimsdyk pass from the right faceoff circle off the left post and in at 5:02 to put the Wildcats on top, 1-0.
I just called for [the puck] and [vanRiemsdky] made a great pass, said Butler. I looked where I wanted to put it and luckily it went in.
Each team would trade quality chances before the end of the frame as both clubs mustered 13 shots in the frame, but neither club beat the respective goaltenders sending the game to the third with the Wildcats holding the slim one-goal margin.
In the third, BC controlled puck possession but struggled to get shots to the net. The best bid came off the stick of Kyle Kucharski who was staring down a wide open net after a UNH turnover. He didnt get the wood he wanted on the shot and Regan was able to get a piece of the puck, just enough to deflect it off the left post.
When BCs Mike Brennan was forced to haul down vanRiemsdyk on a breakaway with 7:17 remaining, the Wildcats went on the power play for the fourth time in the game and this time cashed in on Flaishans blast from the point.
If there was any question of the outcome, Regan answered it loudly with two minutes remaining stopping BCs Ben Ferriero with a point-blank glove save, his 28th and final of the night.
With Providence losing to Merrimack, 2-0, and Northeastern falling to Boston University, 7-4, the Wildcats have opened up an eight point lead over BC and a nine-point lead over BU and Vermont, each of whom leapfrogged into a tie for third place with wins on Friday. With just five games remaining for each team, the second straight regular season title for the Wildcats seems a foregone conclusion.
The Eagles, though, have no intention of making things easy at least on Saturday when the teams rematch in Durham, N.H. But to stop this red-hot team will take a significantly improved performance over Friday night.
We have to be sharper and crisper for 60 tomorrow night, said York.