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Power play turned the tide in Wildcats’ favor

MANCHESTER – As time ticked away in what was shaping up as one of the best periods of their season, and they continued to trail the Northeast Regional semifinal despite carrying the play, the urgency became palpable for the University of New Hampshire’s hockey players.

They could feel it. The fans could, too, which is why coming out of the TV timeout that immediately proceeded a cross-checking penalty on Denver’s Larkin Jacobson, the announced Verizon Wireless Arena crowd of 8,049 was vocal in its efforts to encourage the hometown Wildcats.

They’d been outshooting the Pioneers. They’d tilted the ice in their favor after an uneasy opening frame. They’d started to assert themselves – yet they had nothing to show for it.

Until the power play presented them an opportunity that everyone in the building knew they needed to seize.

And they did.

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

The sequence started with an sense of desperation, both audibly and in the way the Wildcats were moving the puck. Their initial rally was foiled when Trevor van Riemsdyk’s stick broke on a shot he had “teed up from the ladies tees,” as Gwozdecky put it. The Wildcats, though, came right back on the attack, and were quickly buzzing around Juho Olkinuora’s crease.

There were chances, and they were quality, with Grayson Downing and Austin Block each narrowly missing on bids that flew wide or whistled through the paint. But eventually the ’Cats settled the rubber and worked it to the high slot and to van Riemsdyk, their all-conference defenseman. He didn’t waste much time, only waiting to get the puck on his stick and get some mustard behind the wrister he ripped – with his fresh, intact stick.

It wasn’t the zippiest of shots, but with Block screening the netminder it was enough. He beat Olkinuora low on his glove side, tucking the puck neatly between the goalie’s left leg and the pipe, and tying the game at 2-2 with 5:26 to play in the second period.

“That,” Block said, “was a huge point in the game.”

It gave the Wildcats momentum, and they didn’t relinquish it before taking another opportunity with the man-advantage to tally a Dalton Speelman strike that officially went as the game-winner in a 5-2 final.

But it was their ability to finally capitalize and capture the moment – instead of letting Denver keep dodging bullets and even swing the pendulum their way with a good penalty kill – where things really turned.

“Power play’s been very good the second half (of the season),” said UNH Coach Dick Umile, whose team is now 15-5-2 when it scores at least one power play goal, and now has four in its last three games. “It’s saved us in games.”

Last night it may have saved the season.

Injuries mount

Before UNH stretched its advantage to 4-2 midway through the final period, the Wildcats missed a chance to add some cushion during a five-minute power play earlier in the period. And though John Henrion’s tally ultimately mitigated the potential damage of that missed opportunity, the Wildcats haven’t yet escaped that sequence unscathed.

The major penalty that provoked the power play was called when Denver’s Nick Shore delivered a hit to the head of New Hampshire’s Kevin Goumas. Shore was issued a game misconduct, but Goumas didn’t return either – leaving the status of the ’Cats leading scorer in question for today’s game.

Compounding that loss is an injury to Grayson Downing, the sophomore who centers UNH’s top line. He didn’t play in the third period after sustaining an undisclosed injury on a hit near the end of the second period, so the Wildcats played the final 19 minutes without their two highest-scoring forwards, and the centers of their top two lines.

Both will be evaluated this morning.

River Hawks win

After the game Umile didn’t know the status of either Goumas or Downing for tonight’s tilt – though if either of them is out, it could be a big blow considering who awaits in the Regional final.

The Wildcats’ opponent tonight will be Hockey East champion UMass Lowell, winners of yesterday’s early game by a 6-1 count over Wisconsin, and beneficiaries of what may be the hottest goalie in the nation. Connor Hellebuyck made 31 saves in support of six different goal scorers as the River Hawks won for the 13th time in 14 games.

Only twice in that time have they yielded more than two goals in a game. Yesterday was the fifth occurrence over that stretch in which Lowell surrendered just a single strike, and it also has four shutouts.

“They’re playing the best hockey I’ve ever seen,” Henrion said.

Loose pucks

∎ Since 1983, UNH is now 19-1 when scoring at least three goals in an NCAA Tournament game. The only loss came in 2008, in a 7-3 setback to Notre Dame.

∎ With the victory, which improved the team to 20-11-7, New Hampshire reached the 20-win plateau for the 19th time in Umile’s 23 seasons as head coach. It’s also the fourth straight NCAA appearance that they’ve reached the Regional final, and second straight in Manchester.

∎ All five Regionals played in Manchester have now included at least one Hockey East team in the final, with today’s tilt joining 2009’s Boston University-UNH clash as the site’s second championship game featuring two teams from that league.

∎ Seniors Austin Block and Henrion each had nine shots on goal for UNH, as the ’Cats outshot the Pioneers 41-33 overall – including 27-14 over the final two periods.

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