DURHAM, N.H. — For the first time in three years, the University of New Hampshire is headed to Boston for playoff hockey.
With a 4-3 see-saw win over Vermont, the second-seeded Wildcats swept the best of three Hockey East quarterfinals, advancing to the semis held at the TD Garden next Friday.
The series sweep came after the Wildcats, despite being the higher seed three times in a row, fell in the quarterfinals every season dating back to 2008.
“We’re excited to be going to Boston,” UNH coach Dick Umile said. “I guess you have to go through adversity to get there. And we did.”
Mike Sislo netted the game-winning wrister from the slot 34 seconds after Vermont recorded the equalizer.
Nick Bruneteau put home a rebound at the doorstep to tie it at 3-3 with 3:34 to go before unleashing a Captain Morgan pose toward the UNH fans.
The move fired up Sislo, UNH’s captain, who skated to the red line to give his version of the Captain Morgan pose.
“I kind of take it as an insult when other teams come in and try to do a fancy celebration,” Sislo said. “I wanted to try to give it back to them a bit.”
Vermont nearly had a chance to respond with another equalizer and another celebration late.
After two Catamounts went to the box, giving UNH a five-on-three for the final 1:29, Vermont turned it up a gear, pulling its goalie and putting a couple chances on net.
Jack Downing beat a UNH defender to the outside and had a good look at what would have been an emotional equalizer.
However, Matt Di Girolamo (25 saves) was there and stopped Downing’s bid with the blocker.
“He’s a big game player,” UNH forward Paul Thompson said. “He showed that at Waterloo and he’s showed it here.”
Thompson lit the lamp midway through the third to give UNH a 3-2 lead with a wrist shot that beat Madore stick side.
Vermont answered again when Tobias Nilsson-Roos recorded a hat trick goal with 7:29 to go in the third.
“When they tied it 3-3, it wasn’t a good situation,” Umile said. “I’m just disappointed at the end of game the way we handled the five-on-three.”
The Wildcats appeared to take a 3-2 lead a minute before Thompson’s tally when Sislo roped a one-timer from the slot. But, after a review, the referees ruled that Damon Kipp used a hand pass to get the puck to Sislo.
“Kipp said he passed it with his stick,” Sislo said. “But the camera must’ve showed something else. That would have been a big goal.”
Vermont held the lead for nearly 15 minutes through the better part of the second after Ben Albertson tipped in a one-timer at the doorstep.
However, momentum-swinging goals at the end of the period within a minute of each other powered UNH.
Austin Block struck first with a wrist shot that snuck over Rob Madore’s (35 saves) leg pad.
Just 41 seconds later, Stevie Moses deflected a low Brett Kostolansky shot from the point up and over Madore’s shoulder, which gave the Wildcats their first lead of the night.
“Austin Block hit a nice shot,” Vermont mentor Kevin Sneddon said. “Then, they had a good shift right after that and instead of going in 1-1, it’s 2-1. That hurt.”
Vermont finishes its season at 8-20-8 and graduates six seniors. The Wildcats, meanwhile, head to Boston for a quarterfinal matchup with either No. 13 Boston University or No. 9 Merrimack, depending on the result of Sunday’s BU-Northeastern game.
“I’m going to relax and watch BU play tomorrow. I don’t care who wins,” Umile said. “I’m just happy to get back to Boston.”