New Hampshire drew first blood in its pivotal weekend series with archrival Maine, winning 6-3. The Wildcats scored four times in the first period, taking a 4-2 lead, and put the game away with two third period goals.
The backbreaker came at 7:06 of the third while UNH enjoyed a four-on-three man advantage. Maine had narrowed the margin to 4-3, but Phil DeSimone, Blake Kessel, and Paul Thompson combined on a picture perfect display of puck movement.
From high on the right side, DeSimone slid the puck to Kessel at left faceoff dot where he hit Thompson with a back door pass. Thompson converted for his 22nd goal of the year.
“You always want to score 4-on-3,” Thompson said. “We work on that probably twice a week and always with the same four guys. I usually screen but if they’re moving the puck around and I can find the time to come out, I try to sneak back door. It was a great play by Blake.”
Nineteen seconds later, Maine’s Gustav Nyquist created a breakaway but Matt DiGirolamo came up with the huge momentum-saving stop, much as he’d done late in the second period when the Black Bears were threatening. DiGirolamo would finish with 37 saves on 40 shots.
Even before the fateful 4-on-3, power plays for both teams dominated the opposing penalty killers. UNH finished 2-of-3 on the man advantage, Maine 3-for-4.
“I didn’t want to get another penalty, that’s for sure,” UNH head coach Dick Umile said with a rueful grin. “You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to figure that one out.”
Mike Beck’s first goal of the season with five minutes remaining provided extra insurance and the final 6-3 margin.
With the win, New Hampshire remains tied in points with Boston College for the lead in Hockey East while holding two games in hand. The Wildcats have also taken the season series with their archrival regardless of the rematch game on Saturday.
“It’s always exciting when we play Maine,” Umile said. “There’s great respect for the program and we’ve had great matchups. We got the two points tonight and we’ll go right back at it tomorrow night.”
In losing, Maine squandered the 40-25 shot advantage and a power-play hat trick by Nyquist.
“It was a bit like Groundhog Day,” Maine head coach Tim Whitehead said. “We’ve had a lot of games like this where we’ve played well enough to get some points but haven’t gotten any.
“It’s frustrating. But nobody quit and nobody will.”
The Black Bears, who opened the game in fifth place, fell further behind in the Hockey East standings since all four teams ahead of them won.
“It’s a double-whammy, I suppose,” Whitehead said. “We’ve just got to focus on ourselves and try to grab as many points as we can so we can fight our way back up into home ice position. Right now we’re at the bottom looking up.”
The Wildcats seized their 4-2 lead in a wide-open first period that marked the third straight game they scored four goals in a period. Thompson got it started at 4:31, going top shelf for his 50th career goal. The goal came seconds after DiGirolamo made a great pad save at the other end on Josh Van Dyk at the doorstep.
Maine countered with the first of Nyquist’s power-play goals. Tanner House passed from left boards to Nyquist on the weak-side post where he easily redirected it into an open net.
The Wildcats retook the league at 8:04 on an Austin Block conversion of a rebound that caromed to him in the right low slot.
That lead lasted all of 34 seconds, though. Nyquist scored again on the power play from the net front, this time on a rebound that DiGirolamo should have controlled.
The see-saw scoring continued three minutes later during UNH’s first power play. Dalton Speelman took a puck in front and backhanded it into net, giving the Wildcats a 3-2 lead.
A nice Wildcat 2-on-1 closed out the period’s scoring with Stevie Moses feeding Kevin Goumas, left to right. The freshman converted for his first collegiate goal.
A more controlled second period followed with Maine getting the only tally. Nyquist completed his power-play hat trick at 18:09, beating DiGirolamo short side after the UNH netminder had made several stellar saves.
Despite an 11-5 shot advantage in the third, Maine couldn’t draw even before Thompson’s crucial 4-on-3 goal.
The two teams faceoff again at the Whittemore Center on Saturday night.