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UNH hockey team can’t dig out of another hole

DURHAM – The University of New Hampshire hockey team followed the same formula last night that had worked the past three games. Just over four minutes in, the Wildcats were trailing. Just over seven minutes in, they were in a deeper hole.

During their three-game winning streak, deficits hadn’t been problems for the Wildcats. Nothing a sharp second period or potent third period couldn’t fix. But Union College didn’t make it into the national top 10 this year by coughing up leads, and UNH’s penchant for late surges wasn’t going to make it change its ways.

UNH saw a four-game winning streak come to an end with a 3-1 loss to the sixth-ranked Dutchmen, getting what Coach Dick Umile and his players stressed as an important weekend started on a frustrating note.

“This loss was pretty disappointing … especially coming out so flat like we did in the first period,” senior defenseman and captain Eric Knodel said. “This was a huge game for us, a huge weekend for us.

“First two periods, we came out flat. Didn’t do anything to help us out there.”

No. 17 UNH (13-11-1) won its last four games despite falling behind in all of them, but the road-tested Dutchmen (14-4-3) never gave the Wildcats an option to pull off the dominant periods that had saved them in two wins over Nebraska-Omaha and one over Dartmouth. Matt Hatch and Michael Pontarelli had Union up 2-0 just 7:06 into the game, and Daniel Carr had a power-play goal to make it a 3-0 ditch 5:49 into the second.

“It wasn’t our best team effort,” Umile said. “We needed everybody to have one of their better games, and I don’t think (we did) enough. We got beat as a team tonight, that’s how I feel about it. Disappointing.”

The Wildcats desperately needed another surge – and they almost got it. Their window came at the start of the third period, when Matt Willows led a 3-on-1 with Kevin Goumas and Nick Sorkin. Willows tried a pass through the crease to Goumas, but Union defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere slid to stop the puck in its path. It bounced off him and right to Sorkin, however, and the senior forward held the puck for a second or two before getting it by goalie Colin Stevens (38 saves) just 47 seconds into the period.

There were still two more goals to score, but the thought that this could be UNH’s most impressive rally yet began to grow in the players’ minds.

“Anytime you’re down, you’ve got a period to play, and you get a goal on the first shift like that, it really kind of gives you the momentum,” Sorkin said.

UNH kept attacking, and nearly cut the gap in half on the next shift when a Jeff Silengo shot rang off the post. The Wildcats’ intensity didn’t wane, resulting in a 19-11 advantage in shots on goal for the period, but there weren’t any more golden chances to come. A final hope instead proved to be a final blow, as UNH went on the power play with 4:51 to play but didn’t even register a shot on goal against Union’s airtight penalty kill.

“Unfortunately we hit the post again (Goumas hit iron in the first period), but still, it was good shift after good shift,” Sorkin said. “We just couldn’t finish our chances.”

Union took the lead 4:21 into the game when it crashed the net and, after several Dutchmen took stabs at the loose puck, Hatch finally got it past goalie Casey DeSmith (29 saves). The next goal came when Pontarelli scored on a wrist shot from the slot on a 3-on-2 rush, putting UNH in trouble quickly against a Union team that, at 8-1-2, has been at home on the road all year.

Still, panic didn’t set in – after all, the Wildcats had come up with the answer before.

“Just get the next goal,” Umile said of the team’s mindset. “And for that matter, get one early when we went down three.”

They did get one, but that was all, not enough to prevent another slow start from finally catching up to them.

“We’ve been lucky the past couple of games to come back and get a win after going down early,” Knodel said. “But we faced a good team tonight, and they were able to take what we had in the third period.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at abonifant@cmonitor.com or 369-3340 or on Twittter @dbonifant.)

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