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UNH hockey team feels pre-holiday lift despite another loss to BC

DURHAM – It still goes in the standings as a loss, but considering the holes that were plugged in between weekend games against Boston College, the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team jumped at the chance to embrace the positives after a hard-fought 2-1 defeat to the No. 9 Eagles last night.

The timing couldn’t have been better – compared to Friday’s 6-2 loss in Chestnut Hill, last night’s loss at least gave the Wildcats a source for confidence heading into a three-week holiday break.

“That’s definitely the consensus in the locker room,” said junior forward Matt Willows, who scored the lone goal for No. 18 UNH (9-9-1, 5-5). “Overall, I think we had great effort, and I like the way our team looks.”

Putting forward a better effort than Friday’s wasn’t a hard task. Neither players nor coaches were making excuses for the letdown, choosing instead to focus on fixing the errors and giving the Wildcats a better shot in last night’s rematch.

They did, though BC still had the answer with 2:09 left in the second period: an open Kevin Hayes, who sniped a shot past Casey DeSmith from the right circle for the go-ahead, and final, goal.

“We knew we’d have to come out and play a 60-minute game, because obviously last night we didn’t do it,” UNH Coach Dick Umile said. “I thought they came out tonight and played hard, right from the start, right through the finish. (It’s) unfortunate that we couldn’t put the puck past them.”

Last night’s and Friday’s games had their similarities – UNH went 0-for-4 on the power play, allowed no power plays and outshot BC (10-4-2, 6-1-1) in both – but the common ground didn’t carry over to how the Eagles took their final leads. After feasting on UNH breakdowns Friday, BC instead got a break last night, as Patrick Brown won a battle for a loose puck at the blue line and slid it over to Hayes, who was open after coming off the bench seconds earlier. A UNH defender got over in time to hit Hayes during his shot, but the senior had enough on it to beat DeSmith (17 saves) stick side for the 2-1 lead.

“He made a really good shot there, coming across … to the right-side pad,” BC Coach Jerry York said. “It was a good, quick release. This is by far his best year with us.”

BC took a 1-0 lead 16:07 into the game, when Hayes and Gaudreau chipped shots off of DeSmith and Bill Arnold eventually got one past him from in front of the crease. UNH answered 7:11 into the second with the same hard-nosed style, as Nick Sorkin got a shot off from a crowd up close that deflected off goalie Thatcher Demko (28 saves) through the front of the crease, allowing Willows to gather it and fire it past.

“I just found the open ice, and the puck happened to come to me,” Willows said. “I happened to capitalize on that one. We should have capitalized on more than we did.”

If anything, that was the disappointing aspect to the game. UNH controlled the span between the tying and go-ahead goals, with Willows missing wide on an almost identical chance nearly 20 seconds after his goal. Even after BC took the lead, the chances were there in the third, as Jay Camper missed a one-timer wide, Jamie Hill couldn’t corral a pass in the crease from Grayson Downing, and Kevin Goumas saw a breakaway chance slip away when a pass up ice got by him and resulted in an icing call.

“We never got it tied up. But I like the way the team played,” Umile said. “Disappointed with the fact that we lost … but it was not from any lack of effort.”

Heading into the long break with back-to-back losses is almost always a formula for holiday grouchiness, but that wasn’t the tune coming from the UNH players. The Wildcats’ record took a hit, but judging from their reactions, their confidence got a boost.

“Going into the break, we really emphasized trying to get some points going into it,” senior defenseman and captain Eric Knodel said. “In the end, it still hurts to lose these games.

“But we know we’re a good team. … The records don’t show it, but we’re right there with those teams.”

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

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