They came into their Northeast Regional semifinal game with similar streaks for consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Trailing only Michigan, New Hampshire had earned its eighth straight berth to North Dakota’s seven.
The two teams shared other similarities. On the plus side: some of the most highly skilled players in the country and a penchant for terrorizing opponents on the transition. On the minus side: two straight losses in this year’s league playoffs.
But the reflection UNH and UND saw in each other became a mirror image when looking at the NCAA tournament. North Dakota’s winning percentage (38-19, .679 percent) ranked best in the country and had produced seven national champions, most recently in 1997 and 2000, along with four straight appearances in the Frozen Four.
By contrast, UNH’s frustrations in the NCAA Tournament had been mounting since losing in the 1999 and 2003 championship games. Arguably, if a bounce or two had gone differently in the 1999 overtime contest against archrival Maine, UNH’s struggles since then might not be so pronounced or at least might not hurt so bad. Even so, the Wildcats were still seeking their first national championship, their NCAA Tournament record stood at 12-21, and they had been eliminated in the first round four of the past five years, including the last three.
Mirror images of each other.
While North Dakota’s seniors had gone to the Frozen Four every year, their counterparts at UNH had been one-and-done. So even though New Hampshire was hosting this year’s Northeast Regional at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, few doubted the identity of the favorite in the matchup and not just because the Fighting Sioux came in as the number two seed and UNH as number three.
As the game developed, the goals came from sources both expected and unexpected. But when Chris VandeVelde scored to make it 5-3 North Dakota halfway through the third period, it looked like lights out for the Wildcats. North Dakota did not lose this type of NCAA game and UNH in recent years did not win it.
Less than two minutes after VandeVelde’s goal, one that could have crushed a team of lesser resilience, UNH captain Greg Collins scored perhaps the biggest goal of his career, taking a great setup at the far post from Damon Kipp at the point.
Still, as the seconds ticked down, they seemed to sound the death knell to UNH’s season. North Dakota would again advance at least to the NCAA regional title game and UNH would again be one-and-done, especially painful coming again in its own building.
With 5.7 seconds remaining, instant reply was invoked to see where the faceoff would be after the puck left the ice surface. If it was outside the zone, the game was over. If it was inside the zone, UNH still had the slimmest of chances.
The team whose players were 0-for-the-NCAAs would have to pull off a miracle against a team whose players had batted 1.000 in getting to the Frozen Four. The ruling came down: inside the zone.
Everything would have to go right.
And it did. Thomas Fortney won the faceoff back to Kevin Kapstad at the right point, who slid it over to the opposite point for Mike Sislo’s one-timer. When the shot went wide, Jerry Pollastrone dug the puck from behind the net and centered to Fortney who put it in.
The goal heard throughout the Granite State came with a jaw-dropping 0.1 seconds remaining on the clock.
As one jubilant UNH fan would later say, “Usually that stuff happens against us.”
And when Peter LeBlanc ripped the game-winner into the net in the first minute of overtime, the Verizon Wireless Arena exploded.
The mirror had shattered.
The team that hadn’t seemingly gotten its share of the bounces, got the biggest of them to knock off a team that never seemed to lose this type of game.
“North Dakota has a rich history and [coach] David Hakstol has done a tremendous job,” Umile said. “He’s been to the Frozen Four every year as a head coach. They’re the ones that usually get there.
“So the fact that these guys battled back, especially down two goals, [is so satisfying]. They executed. Nobody panicked. They stayed with the game plan we had going in even though we were down by two goals. They stayed focused and played with great composure.”
Hakstol disagreed over his own team’s advantage going into the game, choosing instead to praise UNH.
“I really don’t think that past games and past records have any bearing,” he said. “The bottom line is that they made the play at the end of the game to tie it and they took advantage of good transition and won the game with a great play. They showed a ton of character.”
Umile could empathize with Hakstol. He’s walked in his shoes.
“I know how North Dakota feels,” Umile said. “That’s a tough loss. We beat them with one tenth of a second.
“I’ve been on the other end. Those last three years that we lost, we lost some tough games.
“But when you win them, it’s what makes it all satisfying and rewarding. There’s nothing like this. You take a win like this one to your grave.”
Never has a shattered mirror looked so good.