Special teams returns to being a strength for New Hampshire

When New Hampshire’s penalty kill, at the time the best in the country, allowed two power-play goals in the third game of the Wildcats’ Hockey East quarterfinal series with Providence, it seemed the most cruel twist of fate.

How could the greatest strength of your team stick a dagger in your heart at the most important time, even if the two tip plays could be considered nothing more than really bad puck luck?

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The special teams twist of fate turned from cruel to kind as New Hampshire stymied the Denver power play and scored what amounted to two of its own in a 5-2 win on Friday, sending the Wildcats to a Northeast Regional final matchup with Massachusetts-Lowell.

New Hampshire topped Hockey East with a plus-18 special teams net during the regular season and used that strength to overcome a strong first 30 minutes by Denver. The Pioneers poured 19 shots on net in the first period and took a 2-1 lead.

Enter the UNH power play. Trevor van Riemsdyk scored a critical man-advantage goal, putting a shot from the point through an Austin Block screen for the equalizer. In the final minute of the second period, Dalton Speelman converted at the exact moment another Denver penalty ended to take the lead. The goal officially went into the books as even strength but amounted to a second power-play goal in every other way.

“When our power play is at its best, we’re moving it around, creating seams,” van Riemsdyk said. “When one guy tries to do a little too much, that’s when it breaks down. But we were zipping it around.

“When you get the lane, you have to take it. You just have to throw it to the net when you get a chance. I did that and then Brett Kostolansky did the same thing and we had guys there to bang it home.”

The 2-1 deficit that threatened to end the Wildcats’ season had become a 3-2 lead.

“Their power play turned the game around dramatically for them,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said.

New Hampshire failed to capitalize on a five-minute major penalty. That might have proved a critical turning point if not for the Wildcats’ penalty kill unit coming through while down five-on-three.

“Their power play did a terrific job,” Gwozdecky said. “The power-play opportunities we got, we didn’t do a real good job [with] and they obviously took advantage of theirs. Special teams are always important in either giving you momentum or sealing the game. And theirs did.”

In short, New Hampshire’s special teams strength reasserted itself just when the team needed it most.

“They’re moving on in a big way because of their special teams,” Gwozdecky said.