After early stumble, New Hampshire finds right time to come on strong

Not many expected them to win.

The New Hampshire Wildcats had finished the regular season on a sour note, getting swept in the final weekend to lose that title to Boston College. They finished the Hockey East tournament on a sour note, losing to Merrimack in the semifinals. And according to a fatalist segment of their fans, the Wildcats always lose in the playoffs.

While they would be playing what amounted to a home game at Manchester, they were facing Miami, the Northeast Regional’s No. 1 seed and a team on a 13-game unbeaten streak. The RedHawks had suffered some mighty painful losses themselves but had a senior class that had advanced to two Frozen Fours and had just won the CCHA tournament.

And not just won it. The RedHawks had demolished all competition, sweeping Alaska 4-1 and 4-1 in the quarterfinals before dismantling Notre Dame in the semifinals, 6-2, and Western Michigan in the championship game, 5-2.

Nope, not many expected the UNH Wildcats to win. For those picking NCAA tournament brackets, UNH was the long shot designed to separate the picker from the rest of the field just in case a miracle took place.

Not even the hometown crowd believed. The cheers sounded tepid. The fans were going through the motions for their boys. At least some of them. They deserved some credit, but they were going through the motions and it sounded it.

Then Miami scored 53 seconds into the game.

Uh-oh. This had the potential to get ugly. Ugly fast.

You could almost sense the UNH partisans glancing at their watches, wondering how long they’d have to stick around. They would for appearances’ sake. Out of obligation, though certainly not because anything good was going to come of it. They’d seen this movie before and weren’t interested in a rerun.

Then a funny thing happened. Kevin Goumas scored exactly a minute after the Miami goal. But even more importantly, the Wildcats began to play an increasingly perfect game, throttling the high-powered RedHawks, who came into the game with the nation’s fourth best offense.

The Wildcats were blocking shots like madmen en route to a total of 20 by the game’s end while also taking away the Grade-A opportunities.

One minute into the third, Mike Sislo gave them their first lead of the night, putting away a perfect setup from Blake Kessel. Goumas added an empty netter in the closing minutes.

By game’s end, the tepid support from the hometown fans had quadrupled in intensity. They hadn’t believed when the game started or even well into it. But they did by the end of the third period.

And for good reason.

“We played well all night,” UNH coach Dick Umile said. “We took away space and didn’t give them a whole lot of room to create plays because they can really create offense. We just wanted to be blocking shots and get into them quickly and not give them a whole lot of time.”

Mission accomplished. Miami mustered only 22 shots and a single goal.

“We bounced back from that [first-minute goal] great,” Sislo said. “We worked hard. We did all the little things. We were very disciplined and very smart. It was one of the most complete games we played all year.”

Arguably, Miami needed to put away the Wildcats early when perhaps their confidence was its most fragile. But Miami couldn’t. UNH’s superior play wouldn’t allow it.

“No doubt about it, our confidence grew as the game went on,” Umile said. “We had confidence — it was a matter of putting it together.

“We knew we had to work hard and as the game went along and guys worked hard, good things happened. We moved the puck. We got out of the zone. We didn’t get hemmed in.

“We got some offense and we’ve got the goaltender. That added to our confidence and we just took it and ran with it.”

For all the abuse UNH has taken for its playoff frustrations — a good portion of it from its own fans — it is the only school that can now claim at least one win in the NCAA tournament for each of the last three years.

But neither Umile nor the team wants to hear about that now.

“It’s all about the next step,” Umile said. “That’s all we’re going to focus on now.”

Sislo put it best.

“Winning the national championship is the ultimate goal,” he said. “We have a few more steps to go.”