MANCHESTER, N.H. — Cutting it close would be an understatement.
Third seed New Hampshire rocketed into the Northeast Regional finals in a 6-5 overtime thriller against second-seeded North Dakota Saturday. Thomas Fortney’s goal with 0.1 seconds left in regulation and Peter LeBlanc’s game winner 45 seconds into OT roused the 6,838 in attendance at the Verizon Wireless Arena as the Wildcats won their first NCAA game in the past four years.
The Wildcats brought themselves back from the dead after being swept by Boston College in the Hockey East semifinals. North Dakota was also coming off two losses, but the resuscitation of both teams produced an 11-goal game as well as a multiple-point matinee performance for five Wildcats and two Fighting Sioux: LeBlanc, Jerry Pollastrone, Bobby Butler, Mike Sislo, Greg Collins, and North Dakota’s Chris VandeVelde and Matt Frattin.
“The University of New Hampshire showed a ton of character,” said North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol. “The way they played today, they got a good bounce to the puck, and they had an awful lot of good play on their team today. From our standpoint, I am extremely proud of this hockey team. We’ve been a good team throughout the year and have an absolute first-class group of guys in our locker room. It’s painful to go out in this fashion.”
“First off, I just want to congratulate North Dakota,” said UNH coach Dick Umile. “As far as we are concerned, we are very excited. We love playing here and we’re excited to play here and win. We stayed with it and didn’t panic.”
The Fighting Sioux outshot the Wildcats in the first and second periods and accumulated 45 shots on goal to UNH’s 34. Nevertheless, two minutes into the opening stanza, North Dakota senior Matt Watkins took a seat for hooking and the Wildcats capitalized with the man advantage at 2:34.
UNH’s leading goalscorer, Sislo, beat Fighting Sioux netminder Brad Eidsness (28 saves) by tapping it in on the rush for his sixth power-play goal of the season.
Exactly one minute later the Fighting Sioux answered after winning a faceoff from the right circle. North Dakota rookie Jason Gregoire curled around toward the slot and sent the puck in past Brian Foster (40 saves) stick-side to tie it up.
Soon after, the Fighting Sioux nabbed the lead during a four-on-four when senior Andrew Kozek fed the puck from behind the net to Brad Malone, who was waiting at the crease to beat Foster stick-side again at 13:55.
With three and a half minutes to go Kessel shot from the right circle, but it was deflected and then soon after, van Riemsdyk tried to stuff in multiple rebounds at the crease, but it was not yet the time for UNH.
The Wildcats clawed back early in the second when Pollastrone descended on Eidsness for a one-on-one. Pollastrone drove to the right side of the net and lifted the puck high over Eidsness’ glove to put his team back in the running.
The Wildcats scored again at 7:21. LeBlanc back-passed to Collins coming down the left wing and the captain fed the rubber back to LeBlanc, who beat a diving Eidsness glove-side for UNH’s third goal of the day to put the Wildcats ahead.
The Fighting Sioux did not retreat. Captain Ryan Duncan nabbed the tying goal at 9:47 off a rebound after Gregoire wrapped around the back of the Wildcat net for a shot also touched by Foster and Brett Hextall before Duncan put it away
North Dakota took the lead back at 17:06. Malone skated down the left wing with the puck and sent it past a defender to the bottom of the slot where VandeVelde chipped it past Foster to edge his team ahead once again.
In the opening minutes of the third stanza, Duncan had another chance at the doorstep while Foster was out of position, but the captain lost control of puck, barely getting off a shot that hit the post.
VandeVelde answered again at 9:08, tallying his second goal of the game as he jammed it in along the right post to give the Fighting Sioux a two-goal cushion.
But just like that, the Wildcats were back in it. From the right point, Damon Kipp sent the puck across just wide of the net, and Collins was there to one-time it through Eidsness.
Desperate with 57 seconds remaining, UNH called a timeout and after a scuffle in front of the North Dakota net, the play was reviewed to determine the pivotal location of the faceoff, which ended up in the North Dakota zone.
The rest was history. From the right point, Kapstad passed it over to Sislo, who rifled a shot that whacked the boards behind the net. Pollastrone pulled the puck out to the front, where Fortney was there to shove it in and hold onto his team’s hopes of banging out a fashionable victory.
“Not a chance,” said Fortney, when asked if he could duplicate the goal. “It actually worked out the way we drew it up. I was put up to take it off my backhand back to Kapstad, over to Sislo, who ended up shooting it wide. Then Jerry got it back from behind the net and I got it in with 0.1 seconds left.”
To put the cherry on top of UNH’s hopes of playing on Sunday, LeBlanc finished it off 45 seconds into OT.
“I just stepped off the bench,” said LeBlanc. Jerry took it up to the blue line and I just tried to get up there and he gave me a great pass.”
Umile wrapped it up. “This win is up there. This is great for UNH hockey and for the university,” he said. “When you win these games that’s what makes it so satisfying and rewarding. There’s nothing like it.”
The Wildcats will see if that sweet taste of victory culminates Sunday in the regional title game, where they face the winner of the Boston University-Ohio State game at 5:30 p.m. at Verizon Wireless Arena.