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UNH hockey team falls to Providence, now sits back for agonizing wait

  • New Hampshire goalie Casey DeSmith, bottom, cannot stop the winning goal by Providence's Nick Saracino (18) during the second period of their college hockey game, Sunday, March 17, 2013, in Providence, R.I.  Providence won 3-2. (AP Photo/Providence Journal, Kris Craig) NO SALES

    New Hampshire goalie Casey DeSmith, bottom, cannot stop the winning goal by Providence's Nick Saracino (18) during the second period of their college hockey game, Sunday, March 17, 2013, in Providence, R.I. Providence won 3-2. (AP Photo/Providence Journal, Kris Craig) NO SALES

  • New Hampshire's Casey Thrush (19) chases the puck with Trevor van Riemsdyk (6) and Providence's Nick Saracino (18) during the second period of their college hockey game, Sunday, March 17, 2013, in Providence, R.I.  Providence won 3-2. (AP Photo/Providence Journal, Kris Craig) NO SALES

    New Hampshire's Casey Thrush (19) chases the puck with Trevor van Riemsdyk (6) and Providence's Nick Saracino (18) during the second period of their college hockey game, Sunday, March 17, 2013, in Providence, R.I. Providence won 3-2. (AP Photo/Providence Journal, Kris Craig) NO SALES

  • Providence's Tom Parisi (6) and Tim Schaller (11) celebrate a second-period goal by Schaller against New Hampshire during their college hockey game, Sunday, March 17, 2013, in Providence, R.I.  Providence won 3-2. (AP Photo/Providence Journal, Kris Craig) NO SALES

    Providence's Tom Parisi (6) and Tim Schaller (11) celebrate a second-period goal by Schaller against New Hampshire during their college hockey game, Sunday, March 17, 2013, in Providence, R.I. Providence won 3-2. (AP Photo/Providence Journal, Kris Craig) NO SALES

  • New Hampshire goalie Casey DeSmith, bottom, cannot stop the winning goal by Providence's Nick Saracino (18) during the second period of their college hockey game, Sunday, March 17, 2013, in Providence, R.I.  Providence won 3-2. (AP Photo/Providence Journal, Kris Craig) NO SALES
  • New Hampshire's Casey Thrush (19) chases the puck with Trevor van Riemsdyk (6) and Providence's Nick Saracino (18) during the second period of their college hockey game, Sunday, March 17, 2013, in Providence, R.I.  Providence won 3-2. (AP Photo/Providence Journal, Kris Craig) NO SALES
  • Providence's Tom Parisi (6) and Tim Schaller (11) celebrate a second-period goal by Schaller against New Hampshire during their college hockey game, Sunday, March 17, 2013, in Providence, R.I.  Providence won 3-2. (AP Photo/Providence Journal, Kris Craig) NO SALES

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – It’s been the rock all season for the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team, a consistent source of confidence for Coach Dick Umile in times of tension. But the Wildcats’ penalty kill unit, the best in all of college hockey, found itself in a situation even it couldn’t handle yesterday in a winner-take-all Hockey East quarterfinal game against Providence College.

Three straight penalties set the seventh-ranked Wildcats up for elimination, as the Friars scored power-play goals on two of those occasions en route to a 3-2 victory that sent them to Boston for the semifinals and UNH home with its conference title hopes dashed.

“I thought our guys played hard today, I thought we got control of the game, had control of the game with three minutes to go in the second, we got a couple of penalties and the game turned around,” Umile said. “They got two power-play goals, and that was the difference in the game.”

An intense third period couldn’t net the tying goal, and the team shortly after the game boarded buses back to Durham and into a week of uncertainty. Hockey East elimination meant a missed chance to formally wrap up a national tournament bid, and while the Wildcats (19-11-7) are all but assured of an at-large spot, Umile wasn’t ready to look ahead to what he didn’t know for sure was there.

“We’ve got to sit and wait,” he said. “You never know. … We have to sit back and watch and hopefully nothing crazy happens.”

The Wildcats bounced back from a disheartening loss to the Friars (17-13-7) in the first game with a convincing win in the second, and they were poised to complete the comeback with a 2-1 lead in the closing minutes of the second period. But Kevin Goumas was called for slashing with eight minutes to go, and while UNH killed the power play, Connor Hardowa was sent to the box after just 35 seconds of even strength for interference, forcing the Wildcats to go shorthanded again.

This time, the unit that ranked first in the country entering the game with a 91 percent penalty kill rate began showing cracks. Tim Schaller scored on a one-timer from the left circle with 3:31 to go, and to make matters worse, a slashing call on John Henrion signaled moments before the goal meant UNH had to stay shorthanded. Disaster struck again 45 seconds later, when Nick Saracino took the puck out of a scrum in the crease and beat Casey DeSmith for the go-ahead, and winning, score.

“We were playing hockey, we got back in the game. It was just a couple of minutes of a lack of discipline,” Henrion said. “They took advantage of their opportunities.”

Even while the parade to the penalty box was going on, the players weren’t allowing doubt to creep into their minds. There had just been too much reason to believe the team would endure the stretch.

“I don’t think you think like that. You think you’re going to stop them,” sophomore forward Grayson Downing said. “Momentum’s a funny thing. You go up that one goal and turn around a couple of power plays later, they’re up.”

After falling behind 1-0 on a Mark Jankowski goal, UNH began to re-take command when Trevor van Riemsdyk threw a puck on net and Henrion was able to whack at and eventually chip in the rebound with 2:53 left in the first. Van Riemsdyk set up the second goal as well when he took the puck at the point and slid a pass down by the net that Downing was able to redirect in on the power play with 9:29 left in the second.

Even after Providence took the lead, the Friars had to withstand UNH’s furious attempts to even up the score in the third. The Wildcats outshot the Friars 11-5 in the period and came close on several opportunities, the best of which occurred with 7:30 to go when Downing rang a wrist shot off the post.

“The third period, I thought we were all over them. We had it,” Downing said. “A couple of bad breaks, I hit the post on one shot. Just couldn’t beat them.”

Even with the disappointing exit, which followed on the heels of frustrating closing weekends against Maine and Massachusetts, the coach and his players were resolute in their confidence they’d make good on a final chance. They think they still have their best hockey to play. All they need is a chance.

“Hopefully we get an opportunity, as I told the team, I like the way our team is playing, I thought we played hard this weekend,” Umile said. “Hopefully, they get an opportunity to play, because they’re a good team and I think they’ve earned it.”

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

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