PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Just 44 seconds.
Two power-play goals.
One major turning point.
Midway through the second period, New Hampshire had been in total control of the decisive Hockey East quarterfinal game against Providence.
Having just taken the lead, the Wildcats were assaulting the Providence net and Jon Gillies (30 saves) was being pushed to the brink, forced to make a series of heart-stopping saves to keep his team in the game.
And yet in just 44 seconds, the game was flipped on its head.
The Friars cashed in twice on the power play to snatch the lead and power their way back to the Hockey East semifinals for the second consecutive year, defeating New Hampshire 3-2 at Schneider Arena.
The win is yet another statement for a Providence team that enters the semifinals with just three losses in its last 14 games.
“You see a young team in the first half [of the season] and you knew we were going to have some ups and downs,” Providence coach Nate Leaman said. “But in the second half, we’ve had a pretty darn good team and beaten a lot of good teams. I still think we have another level to us.”
The loss eliminated UNH from the Hockey East tournament, though the team is still in a reasonably comfortable position to make the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid.
“It was disappointing because I thought we took control of the game and our guys competed,” an exasperated UNH coach Dick Umile said. “It just didn’t happen.”
From the drop of the puck, the pace was as frenetic as one might expect in an elimination game. The play was physical and furious – every check had a response seconds later.
Through the first 15 minutes, Providence was in total control, carving out tons of operating space in the offensive zone while keeping UNH’s shots to the outside.
The Wildcats absorbed the pressure and were rewarded with their patience by a stirring start to the second period. With the game tied 1-1 and the Wildcats on the power play, Trevor van Riemsdyk slapped a pass from the blue line that got redirected into the net by Grayson Downing.
UNH was cruising, until three penalties broke up the momentum, and cost them the lead. The first Friars’ power play was innocuous, but it gave them puck possession, and led to a second, then a third UNH penalty.
Already on the power play 16:29 into the period and with a delayed penalty upcoming, Tim Schaller ripped a wrister from an acute angle top-shelf past Casey DeSmith (22 saves), tying the game.
A mere 44 seconds later and still on the power play, Nick Saracino capped off an incredible season of dominance against the Wildcats, getting the game-winner on a shovel-shot from close range. It was his seventh goal of the year against UNH and gave the Friars a 3-2 lead.
“I thought we had control of the game until three minutes to go in the second,” Umile said. “We got a couple penalties, they got two power-play goals and that was the difference in the game.”
The Wildcats refused to give in, trading chances frantically with the Friars in the third period, ultimately holding the puck in the offensive zone for the final five minutes, setting up a thrilling, dramatic finish.
The clock seemingly took an eternity to tick down for the Friars, as they fended off a plethora of Wildcat chances, but puck possession was mostly limited to the outside, giving the Friars enough breathing space to cling onto the lead and finish off the win.
“I just wanted to stay on it with the little things, do the little things well and be poised in those situations,” Leaman said of the game’s final moments. “We just didn’t want to lose any composure, going out there shift by shift and doing our job, making strong plays.”
With the victory, the Friars know their destiny – a semifinal date next Friday with Massachusetts-Lowell, who beat the Friars for the regular-season title.
As for UNH, it can only sit and wait for a bid to the NCAA tournament.
It will be an anxious week for the Wildcats and Umile, who remarked with a sigh, “You just have to sit back and watch and hopefully, nothing crazy happens.”