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UNH hockey team rides momentum to 5-2 win in NCAA first round

  • UNH's Casey Thrush embraces Dalton Speerman after he knocked in a rebound to bring the Wildcats in the lead at the end of the second period during the game against Denver on March 29, 2013 at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

    UNH's Casey Thrush embraces Dalton Speerman after he knocked in a rebound to bring the Wildcats in the lead at the end of the second period during the game against Denver on March 29, 2013 at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

  • UNH's Matt Willows is separated from a group of Denver defenders after a scuffle near the Denver goal broke during the first quarter of the first round game between the schools on March 29, 2013 in Manchester. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

    UNH's Matt Willows is separated from a group of Denver defenders after a scuffle near the Denver goal broke during the first quarter of the first round game between the schools on March 29, 2013 in Manchester.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

  • UNH's Casey Thrush embraces Dalton Speerman after he knocked in a rebound to bring the Wildcats in the lead at the end of the second period during the game against Denver on March 29, 2013 at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)
  • UNH's Matt Willows is separated from a group of Denver defenders after a scuffle near the Denver goal broke during the first quarter of the first round game between the schools on March 29, 2013 in Manchester. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

MANCHESTER – It looked like more of the same from the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team. Another sluggish start and another early deficit, and the Wildcats had started their NCAA tournament run by taking a quick step toward elimination.

Then things changed, and the Wildcats answered with two periods of their most impressive and fulfilling hockey of the season.

UNH sent a message in its first game of the NCAA tournament, rallying for a 5-2 win over Denver and setting up a regional final appearance against Hockey East champion UMass Lowell.

“That’s how we wanted to play,” UNH Coach Dick Umile said. “We don’t score the first goal too often, so I think the team has great character and doesn’t panic. (They) stayed with it and came out in the second and slowly started to take the game away.”

Like they did in their November victory over Denver, the Wildcats showed resolve in coming back from an early deficit. But unlike that earlier game, a wild 6-4 victory in which UNH erased two multi-goal deficits, this wasn’t a case of a miracle escape. Instead, the Wildcats just found their rhythm, and didn’t let up until the last second ticked away.

“That’s the way that we played, definitely in the first half and inconsistently in the second half of the season,” Umile said. “We’re very capable of playing like that. We got into it in the second period and hopefully we’ll continue to do that (tonight).”

UNH went down 1-0 on a Daniel Doremus goal only 2:24 into the game, and after Casey Thrush evened the game at 1-1 on a shot from the right circle, Denver’s Quentin Shore knocked home a rebound to make it 2-1 Pioneers going into the second period.

It looked similar to several frustrating UNH losses and ties did down the stretch, but the players kept their poise.

“We’ve got some great leadership in the (locker) room,” sophomore defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said. “We had a really positive vibe in the locker room. We just knew we had to get a little bit better.”

They got a lot better. The Wildcats outshot the third-best scoring team in the country 27-14 the rest of the way, and quickly went to work cashing in on opportunities. When Denver’s Larkin Jacobson went to the box for cross-checking, UNH was able to convert when a broken stick set up a de facto 5-on-3, and van Riemsdyk’s shot from the point sailed through a screen and knotted the score with 5:26 left.

The winning goal wasn’t on the power play, but the special teams set it up. Brett Kostolansky got the puck in space at the point and put a shot on goal, and the rebound kicked to Dalton Speelman in front of the right circle. The junior forward knocked it home in the first second of even strength, putting UNH up 3-2 with 22 seconds left in the second period.

“The power play’s been very good the second half,” Umile said. “That saved us a lot in a lot of our games in the second half when things weren’t going well.”

UNH didn’t slow down in the third, even when a blown five-minute major power play gave Denver a hint of momentum. The Wildcats bounced back from the missed chance on a beautifully executed play, as Nick Sorkin slipped a pass backward to Justin Agosta on the rush, who found John Henrion in the slot for the goal with 11:11 to play.

Thrush scored an empty-netter with 2:20 to go to round out the scoring for the Wildcats, who also got 31 saves from Casey DeSmith and killed a 5-on-3 power play late to close out the Pioneers.

“We were here to make a statement,” senior forward Austin Block said. “I think we’re kind of underestimated out there. … We’re going to keep it going tomorrow.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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