MANCHESTER, N.H. — Withstanding the snarl of a chippy NCAA tournament game, New Hampshire topped Denver 5-2 in front of a partisan home crowd of 8,049 at the Verizon Wireless Arena, advancing the Wildcats to a regional final for the third time in the last four years.
2013 NCAA Northeast Regional
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“I’m really proud of the way the team responded in the first period,” UNH coach Dick Umile said. “We fell behind, the guys stayed with it. We gave up a few more shots than we wanted to, but I thought in the second period we responded well.”
The game turned into a bit of a slugfest, building from hard checking in the first period to shoving after several whistles and resulting in a slew of Denver penalties in the second.
“We ran into some penalty problems, which has been an issue for us all season,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky lamented.
New Hampshire seemed to relish the physical play, returning each check just enough to get under the skin of the Pioneers.
“We’re here to make a statement and we’re going to do that through finishing hits,” UNH forward Austin Block said. “I think we’re kind of underestimated out there. Maybe we’re not seen as a hitting team, but we definitely have the guys that can hit. We’re going to put together some skill and some tenacity.”
The unsung hero of the night may have been Casey DeSmith (31 saves), who overcame early struggles to shut down the Pioneers in the second and third periods.
“I said it to him the other night in practice – I said, ‘They forgot about you. It’s a great opportunity for you to make a statement,’” Umile recalled. “He’s proven all year that he can battle back after a disappointing game.”
DeSmith looked apprehensive early on and did not have great control of rebounds in front. The Pioneers were able to capitalize, taking a 2-1 lead in the first period with Daniel Doremus and Quentin Shore both picking up goals off rebounds.
Yet as the game rolled along, DeSmith seemed to settle into a rhythm, as did the rest of his team. An increasingly physical presence in the offensive zone led to a commensurate increase in grade-’A’ chances, frustrating Denver’s defense and leading to several penalty calls on the Pioneers.
On the power play late in the second period, the Wildcats seized that momentum with the tying goal. Continuing to win battles in the corners, the Wildcats rotated the puck up to the blue line, where Trevor van Riemsdyk unleashed a strong wrister past Juho Olkinuora’s glove to tie the game.
Another penalty in the closing seconds proved even more costly.
With just 22 seconds remaining in the period and David Makowski about to exit the box after a tripping minor, Olkinuora spilled a rebound to the back door, where Dalton Speelman was able to bury the loose puck to give the Wildcats their first lead of the game.
While it was an even-strength goal in the box score, Denver had yet to put five skaters back on the ice. The goal culminated a sloppy, frustrating second period for the Pioneers.
“The game tilted when we started taking some of those penalties in the second period,” Gwozdecky said. “Their power play did a terrific job.”
The chippy play came to a head in the opening moments of the third period with a vicious open-ice hit from Nick Shore onto UNH’s Kevin Goumas. While Shore led with his shoulder, he made hard contact with Goumas’ head, leaving Goumas dazed and lying face-down on the ice for several seconds. Goumas did not return to the game and will be evaluated Saturday morning.
While the on-ice officials failed to see the original hit, after conferring, they reversed the non-call and ejected Shore from the game, issuing a five-minute major and a game misconduct.
The Wildcats failed to score on the major penalty, but it changed the complexion of the game and the Pioneers were unable to recover.
The Wildcats got some breathing room 8:49 into the third period when John Henrion completed a gorgeous give-and-go rush with Justin Agosta, burying the goal in transition to make it 4-2.
Minutes later, they virtually sealed the game on a big five-on-three kill with under six minutes to go.
The win sets up a date with Massachusetts-Lowell in Saturday’s regional final. UNH swept Lowell during the regular season, but the last game between the two was in the beginning of December. At that point, UNH was 11-1-2 and Lowell was 4-7-1. Since then, Lowell has gone 23-3-1 and may be the most dangerous team remaining in the NCAA tournament.