It was the ultimate of ironies. With New Hampshire’s top scorer, Lanny Gare, sidelined with a separated shoulder, Josh Prudden took his spot on the number one UNH power play and scored the game winner when a shot redirected off his shoulder into the net.
As winners go, it wasn’t the height of artistic beauty. Nonetheless, it helped send the Wildcats into the Frozen Four for the second straight year. For a player who wasn’t getting the bounces earlier this season, it was a sweet payoff for grinding through the tough times.
“It is very gratifying,” Prudden says. “I did not have a very good year personally, but as long as we keep winning those things are very miniscule to me. I’m going to the Frozen Four. If I don’t score a goal all season, that’s fine with me.”
Down the stretch Prudden centered Lanny Gare and Colin Hemingway, UNH’s top two scorers, as he had done last season. Preston Callander would typically take Prudden’s spot on the power play, but not on this night. With Gare out, Callander joined Prudden and Hemingway full-time and the game-winner was born.
“I’ve got two linemates with me that are great players, great scorers, so as long as they can do that and I can play some defense on that line, that’s fine with me,” Prudden says.
While Prudden might say that he didn’t have a very good year personally, he’ll get strong disagreement from his coach, Dick Umile. Prudden has scored 21 points while assuming most of the dirty work that seldom gets appreciated but remains integral to a successful team.
“He’s not getting a lot of credit for what he does,” Umile says. “He really makes that line go. He’s the centerpiece. He works real hard down low defensively so he’s always getting the puck to those guys who are taking off out of the defensive zone. He’s done a terrific job.
“We were very, very fortunate to get him. He’s become one of our top players.”
When Prudden was scoring goals by the bushel at Pingree, a small Division II prep school north of Boston, he couldn’t imagine himself centering the top line on a Frozen Four-bound powerhouse. Even when he led Philips Exeter to a prep school championship as a postgraduate, earning Player of the Year honors in the process, visualizing himself in his current position remained difficult.
“I could never imagine playing in back-to-back Frozen Fours,” he says. “But that’s the goal for this program, to make it there and win a national championship. There are very high standards here.”
Such high standards that there were difficult times as a freshman. He dressed for only 16 games, saw limited ice time on one of the lower lines and finished with five points.
“Everybody that comes into a program like this is used to being the star at the level that they played at before,” Prudden says. “It’s a huge adjustment to make, coming to a program and learning that you’re going to have to sit back and pay your dues.
“It’s tough on the confidence. That’s the toughest part, maintaining the confidence level you have in yourself, which I think is a huge part of the game. You just have to keep working hard and realize that when you get your chance you’ve got to make the most of it.”
He did that in a big way. As a sophomore he totaled 17 points and was named UNH’s Most Improved Player. As a junior he earned the Robert A. Kullen Award as the team’s unsung hero.
The perseverance he showed earlier in his career stood him in good stead earlier this season when the points weren’t coming as easily as in his 30-point junior year. He kept working hard, playing strong defense and winning key faceoffs.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats continued to win games. They earned a share of the Hockey East regular season crown and then took the tournament title outright. Now with NCAA wins over St. Cloud State and Boston University, they are Frozen Four-bound.
In Buffalo, N.Y., Prudden knows he’s not likely to garner the headlines that are destined for the team’s numerous stars. Doing the dirty work seldom warrants headlines. But it does win championships.
“I try to chip in now and then,” Prudden says. “That’s my role and I don’t have a problem with that. I’m going to the Frozen Four and we’re not going to be happy just being there.”