DURHAM, N.H. — It was anything but easy for the number one seed.
New Hampshire, Hockey East’s runaway regular season champion, stood deadlocked with number eight seed Massachusetts after two periods, 1-1. UMass had needed three straight wins to clinch its playoff berth, but was outshooting UNH, 22-17.
The Wildcats, however, went into the extra third-period gear that has suited them so well all year. Matt Fornataro converted a pass from Danny Dries in the right corner at 4:15. Five minutes later on an odd man rush, Thomas Fortney set up Greg Collins, who had an open net to put the puck in. Jerry Pollastrone, whose first-period breakaway goal had tied the game, iced it with an empty netter.
“A big positive for us is that we’re definitely confident going into the third period no matter what the score is,” goaltender Kevin Regan said. “It shows in our play. It’s not going to happen by itself, but we know if we dig deep and play hard, things will happen for us.”
Regan finished with 34 saves. His counterpart in the UMass end, Paul Dainton, stopped 23 shots, though was victimized by defensive breakdowns on the third-period goals.
For UMass, the third period was a bitter pill to swallow after playing a powerhouse team so well for 40 minutes.
“We felt that the game was being played [through two periods] at a tempo we were comfortable with,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon said. “We wanted to be able to win the game or lose the game based on thorough play, but that’s anything but the way the game ended.
“I praise UNH for their effort, but it was a real poor performance in the third period by us.
“They’re a terrific team. You can’t make mistakes and expect to beat them. If I seem angry, I am because I don’t like my team making mistakes in big games. If you get beat flat out, that’s great. But if we play a part in that, that’s not so great.”
The Minutemen got off to a great start, grabbing the lead and generating the first eight shots of the game, but had to settle for a 1-1 deadlock by the intermission.
Cory Quirk got the first “grade A” opportunity from the slot, but it fell to Will Ortiz to put the Minutemen on the scoreboard. Shooting from low inside the left faceoff circle, the sophomore beat Regan short side.
The lead almost doubled when James Marcou walked out in front and forced a good save by Regan.
Seconds later, however, UNH’s Jerry Pollastrone blocked a shot from the point and raced off on a breakaway. Dainton made the stop, but his backward momentum carried the puck into the net.
The period ended with UMass outshooting the heavily favored Wildcats, 12-9.
Neither team scored in an evenly played second period with Marcou, P.J. Fenton, Chris Davis, and David Leaderer creating the best UMass opportunities. Bobby Butler and James vanRiemsdyk followed suit for UNH.
In the third, Davis had a good chance in front early, but play transitioned into the opposing end. Fornataro camped out in front and converted a deflected pass from Dries in the right corner.
Marc Concannon responded with another good opportunity for UMass, but once again UNH came back up ice and converted. Thomas Fortney carried on the right side, waited, and then fed across to Collins who one-timed it into the open net.
Dainton made a big stop on a Fornataro breakaway with over four minutes remaining to keep the Minutemen in striking distance, but a Pollastrone empty-netter sealed the UNH win.
The two teams resume their best-of-three series tonight at 7 p.m. at UNH’s Whittemore Center.