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A win, a bye and home ice for UNH

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – It wasn’t a momentum swing. More like a momentum shot.

The University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team was getting manhandled in the middle of its regular-season finale, with last-place Merrimack dominating possession and a one-game playoff to start the Hockey East playoffs looming larger with each minute.

Seven seconds later, two pucks had gone into the net, the Wildcats were up and the sights were suddenly set on the Hockey East quarterfinals, a bye and even home ice. What looked unlikely entering last night’s game and improbable halfway through it became official with a 5-2 victory over Merrimack, as the Wildcats wrapped up the fourth seed and a best-of-three playoff series at home against No. 5 Northeastern.

“You’ve just got to stay positive, stay with it,” UNH Coach Dick Umile said. “Sometimes, things aren’t looking very (good), but with the leadership on the team, the guys stayed with it and battled back.”

The victory gave UNH a surprising happy ending to what was setting up to be a disappointing finish. UNH controlled its own destiny for home ice and a bye heading into the weekend, but a 4-2 loss to the Warriors Friday night put them in need of help from their rivals, as well as a win last night.

They got every break they needed. Boston University beat third-place Northeastern, 4-2, and then UNH handled its own business. Not that it looked encouraging early.

“Obviously, they were taking it to us early in the game, but I thought the guys in the middle of the second period turned it around and battled back, and made a game of it,” Umile said. “But we were getting outshot and outplayed the first half (of the game).”

Rarely does a 1-0 score look so deceiving. The Wildcats (19-16-1, 11-9-0) were in the game on the scoreboard but out of sorts on the ice, with Merrimack (8-21-3, 3-15-2) holding a 31-6 advantage in shots on goal when Brendan Ellis went to the box for holding at 11:49 of the second period.

UNH at last had a chance, and in a flash it took advantage. Kevin Goumas carried the puck behind the net and seemed ready to try to stuff it by goalie Sam Marotta when he slipped a pass to Brett Pesce at the top of the right circle. The sophomore defenseman didn’t hesitate, ripping a one-timer into the net to make it 1-1 at 12:21.

The game wasn’t tied for long. UNH won the ensuing faceoff and brought the puck down on a 3-on-2 rush, with Dalton Speelman joined by Grayson Downing and Collin Bourque. Speelman kept the puck and beat Marotta, making it 2-1 at 12:28 of the period.

“That was huge,” Umile said. “I thought Speelman’s goal was a great goal, that was a huge goal for us. The back-to-back, that was quick.”

Nick Sorkin added a goal on a 2-on-1 rush with 39.4 seconds left, but Merrimack drew within one again on Clayton Jardine’s goal at 7:41 of the third. It was 3-2 UNH, and with Boston University leading Northeastern, Wildcats fans all over could start scoreboard watching.

As the outlook brightened, the team stayed in the dark.

“Maybe Coach knew,” Goumas said. “But he didn’t tell us.”

Goumas (who finished with four points) put UNH in control at 13:03 of the period when he knocked in a loose puck near the crease after Pesce smacked a shot from the blue line. The victory was formally wrapped up with 1:28 to go when Sorkin scored an empty-netter off of a pass from Goumas – the senior forward’s 100th career assist.

Not that many of the fans at Lawler Arena knew it, as the goal was credited to Goumas over the speakers.

“I was a little bummed about that,” he joked. “I actually thought about shooting it with my backhand, but Nick Sorkin was screaming for it.”

Merrimack took the game’s first lead on Quinn Gould’s goal at 11:14 of the first period. It was one of the rare times they were able to get anything past goalie Casey DeSmith – the junior stopped 49 shots and helped the Wildcats win a game in which they were outshot 51-21.

“Casey, he played tall, strong,” Umile said.

Thanks to DeSmith and a few well-timed strikes from the players in front of him, UNH will open its postseason at the Whittemore Center for the first time since 2011.

“It’s pretty exciting, I get to play in the Whitt in my senior year for one last time,” Goumas said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or or on Twitter @dbonifant.)

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