BURLINGTON, Vt. — In yet another heart-thumping, high scoring heavyweight battle between Hockey East leaders, No. 9 New Hampshire clawed back to upend No. 7 Vermont 6-5 Saturday night before an electric sell-out crowd of 4,003 at Gutterson Fieldhouse.
Greg Collins led the way for the Wildcats, finishing with three points, including the game-winning goal with 1:16 left in overtime, while goaltender Brian Foster finished with 31 saves.
Committing a plethora of horrendous defensive breakdowns which led to several Wildcats’ tallies, Vermont’s lone bright spot was the play of junior center Jonathan Higgins, who scored his first two goals of the year. The regular season finale victory improves New Hampshire to 19-10-5 (15-8-4 HEA) while Vermont falls to 20-9-5 (15-8-4 HEA).
“We gave them the game, let’s be honest about how it went,” said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon. “[UNH] is a great team, but we gift-wrapped at least four of the six goals tonight. Complete, complete turnovers. Our defenseman were abysmal back there. We left guys wide open, we gave them breakaways, we gave them turnover opportunities. Good teams find a way to capitalize on mistakes. They’re probably one of the best teams in the country at doing that. You give them an inch they’ll take a mile.”
“It’s all about turnovers,” added New Hampshire coach Dick Umile. “We gave up some and they capitalized on ours and, obviously, we capitalized on a couple of theirs. We got the last one.”
Despite carrying play for much of the first eight minutes of regulation, Vermont fell behind 1-0 at 11:48 of the first period thanks to a spectacular individual effort by Wildcats’ center Peter LeBlanc. Gathering a Catamounts’ turnover just inside the UNH blue line, LeBlanc raced up ice and then triple-deked Vermont defenseman Kyle Medvec in tight. LeBlanc faked a move wide then cut back inside to lose Medvec before finally squeezing a backhand between the left post and the right pad of Vermont freshman goaltender Rob Madore (22 saves). Prior to LeBlanc’s highlight-reel lamplighter, Vermont had outshot New Hampshire 11-3 out of the gate.
“We got beat one on one,” lamented a visibly frustrated Sneddon. “At this level, that doesn’t happen, or shouldn’t happen.”
Nevertheless, the Catamounts clawed back just 1:02 later to tie the score 1-1. Executing a give-and-go to textbook perfection, junior Viktor Stalberg took a breakout feed from freshman defenseman Drew MacKenzie and then dished the puck to linemate Brian Roloff near the right dot after gaining the opposing blue line. Noticing Stalberg crash to the net, Roloff feathered a perfect cross ice, backdoor feed to Stalberg on the doorstop, who tapped the puck past Foster for his team leading 22nd goal of the season.
Another self-inflicted wound put Vermont down 2-1 less than four minutes later. Looking to spark an odd-man rush, junior Justin Milo lost the puck between his skates near the left sideboards in his defensive zone. Pouncing on the loose puck, Wildcats’ forward Bobby Butler gained possession and quickly fed linemate James Van Riemsdyk alone in front. Forcing Madore to make a move, the left-handed shooting Van Riemsdyk faked a forehand then pulled the puck back and roofed and backhander past the helpless Vermont netminder for his 15th goal of the season.
Reminiscent of Friday night’s back and forth affair, Vermont battled back to tie the score 2-2 at 6:20 of the second period when Higgins received a cross-ice feed from defenseman Dan Lawson and ripped a wrister between Foster’s pads for his first tally of the year.
Continuing to apply offensive pressure down low, the Catamounts cashed in on a pair of Wildcats’ slashing penalties just over two minutes later to take a 3-2 lead. Sparking the play, sophomore Justin Milo dished the puck back to defenseman Kyle Medvec at the left point. Instead of taking a shot, Medvec slid the puck to his defensive partner Dan Lawson, who blasted a one-timer past Foster for his fifth goal of the season. The five-on-three tally was also Lawson’s second in as many nights.
Not to be outdone, New Hampshire tied the score 3-3 at 15:59 of the middle frame when Alan Thompson corralled a feed from Matt Campanale inside the left circle and snapped off a quick wrister by Madore for his third goal of the season.
Capitalizing on a Wildcats’ turnover, Vermont took a 4-3 lead just 1:14 into the third period. Senior assistant captain Corey Carlson stole the puck near center ice and gained the New Hampshire blue line before pulling up to look for help. The puck squirted off his stick but slid right to junior Colin Vock, who raced in alone on Foster and beat him between the legs with a backhand for his fourth goal of the season.
New Hampshire defenseman Kevin Kapstad tied the score 4-4 less than three minutes later when he ripped a wrister from the left point. Madore appeared to make the save, but the puck trickled past him and just over the goal line. The unassisted tally was Kapstad’s second of the season.
Higgins gave Vermont a 5-4 lead at 6:42 when he secured a rebound to Foster’s right and snapped off a quick wrist shot past the Wildcats’ goaltender for his second goal of the game.
New Hampshire found a way to tie the score and force overtime with less than four minutes remaining in regulation. Once again, a Vermont turnover proved costly, as defenseman Patrick Cullity lost possession behind his own goal. Collins took control and fed LeBlanc alone in front, who hammered home the centering feed for his 12th goal of the year.
“It’s just disappointing because I felt even though as bad as we were playing defensively in terms of turnovers and giving them their goals early on, I thought we kept fighting back to regain the lead,” said Sneddon of the backbreaking tally. “We’re usually pretty good under five minutes with the lead and a horrendous turnover in our own zone just gift wrapped a goal for them.”
The Wildcats capped off the frenzied comeback with 1:16 remaining in overtime when Collins deflected a shot by linemate Paul Thompson past Madore for his seventh goal of the season. Collins promptly barreled into Madore just as the puck crossed the goal line causing a hellacious uproar from the spirited crowd. The referees convened at center ice before waving the goal good.
“We didn’t get much explanation,” admitted Higgins. “It looked like it maybe went off a shin guard or a skate. but not having a TV game, I guess there’s not replay or anything so you’ve got to roll with the punches.”
A microcosm of the game as a whole, the knockout punch was made possible by yet another defensive breakdown by Vermont.
“A bad play by our forwards,” said Sneddon. “We gave up a three-on-two late and they capitalized. The better team won tonight.”
Lawson finished with a goal and as assist for Vermont while LeBlanc, Thompson, Kapstad and Collins all had multiple point games for New Hampshire.
“I thought the second half of the third period, we started to get some jump and started to get some chances,” Umile added. “We really played well, obviously, in the overtime.”
Vermont outshot New Hampshire 36-28 and went one-of-four on the power play while holding the Wildcats to 0-2.
After the game Vermont, honored the team’s five seniors and their parents with an on-ice ceremony. Receiving a commemorative plaque, flowers and a thunderous applause were captain Dean Strong, assistant captains Carlson and Peter Lenes, defenseman Kyle Kuk and student manager Josh Gobeil.
“It was disappointing, obviously tough,” concluded Sneddon. “We’re trying to celebrate the seniors, but I feel like we just gave something away.”