PROVIDENCE, R.I. — This time, New Hampshire finally converted on its chances.
The Wildcats forced a decisive third game in their Hockey East quarterfinal series versus Providence on Saturday, upending the Friars 4-1 in a thriller at Schneider Arena.
Once again, the Wildcats controlled the tempo early on, but tonight, they had the finishing touch, as sophomore Matt Willows picked up his first career hat trick (and first multi-goal game), giving the Wildcats more than enough offense to claim the win.
“That was a heck of a hockey game,” UNH coach Dick Umile remarked. “We played hard yesterday, didn’t get that third goal, but the guys came back together, determined, and played with some confidence.”
The Wildcats’ clean passing and dominant offensive shifts, fruitless on Friday, were finally turned into goals.
It wasn’t without drama, though.
Down 2-1 in the third period, Providence gave it everything it had, pouring 16 shots onto goal, but with some big Casey DeSmith saves and some good fortune by way of the crossbar, the Wildcats were able to hang on.
“We battled back,” Umile added. “We weren’t going to sit on our heels.”
Unlike last night, UNH opened the scoring. At 15:19 into the first period, Kevin Goumas won a faceoff draw in the offensive zone and got a quick pass forward to Willows, who faked out Jon Gillies (20 saves) with some impressive stickhandling, then finished the easy goal.
Grabbing the early lead was significant for the Wildcats’ confidence, allowing them to open up the game more in transition.
The Wildcats doubled the lead just 1:45 into the second period. Once again, it was Goumas to Willows – a clean pass across the low slot to Willows on the back door, who slapped it into a wide-open net.
It took less than two minutes for Providence to respond and once again, it was with the scorer who has been deadly against UNH this year – Nick Saracino.
Just 17 seconds into a Jay Camper interference penalty, John Gilmour found Saracino below the right circle. Saracino then snapped a quick wrist shot past DeSmith (38 saves) to cut the deficit to 2-1.
With a razor-thin margin for error, the tension for the Wildcats continued to mount in the third period.
The Friars nearly tied the game midway through the period when Tim Schaller fired a shot off the bottom of the crossbar. The resulting calamity left DeSmith out of position and the puck slid through the crease, but no Friars were close enough to have a try at the open net.
“[At that point], it was a 2-1 game and I thought we were on top of them pretty well,” Providence coach Nate Leaman said. “When Schaller hit the post, it’s kind of the way the game went for us. It went like that for them last night.”
Still, Providence peppered the UNH net with shots in the third, forcing some nervous saves from DeSmith and a few juicy rebounds.
The backbreaker came from Jeff Silengo, who snuck a weak shot from the wing through Gillies with 2:27 to go.
Moments later, Willows pocketed the empty-net goal to complete the hat trick and seal the win for the Wildcats.
“At the end of the day, their chances went in and ours didn’t,” Leaman said. “We had to be a little bit better defensively. I thought we had a couple mental lapses defensively and they put it in our net.”
Both coaches were asked whether either side would have an advantage in the final game. The answers were nearly identical and probably echoed what everyone in the building was thinking – it’s no surprise that this series will go to a winner-take-all third game and neither team will have the upper hand on Sunday.