UNH hockey team ices Northeastern with comeback win

  • UNH’s Marcus Vela celebrates with his teammates after scoring the go-ahead goal against Northeastern in the third period Thursday night in Durham. The Wildcats won, 5-3, after scoring four goals in a row. CHINA WONG / UNH athletics

Monitor staff
Published: 1/12/2017 11:27:20 PM

DURHAM – The UNH men’s hockey team may have exorcised some of the demons that have been haunting it this season on Thursday.

Once again, the Wildcats went down by two goals in the first period. Once again, they trailed to start the third. But for the first time, UNH turned that third-period deficit into a win by the final horn.

Patrick Grasso scored the game-tying goal and Marcus Vela deflected Matias Cleland’s shot into the net for the go-ahead goal to lead the Wildcats to a 5-3 win over Northeastern at the Whittemore Center.

UNH trailed 3-1 before scoring four straight goals, three in the third period, and earned two valuable points in Hockey East that lifted the Wildcats to a tie for third place in the standings with Vermont.

“We have a lot of character in the room and we really wanted the second half,” said Grasso, who led the team with seven shots and gave UNH its fifth goal on an empty net. “I think that really shows from what we did tonight.”

UNH Coach Dick Umile was relieved to come away with a win that didn’t seem likely through the first two periods and much of the third.

“The guys stayed with it and that was a huge win for us to be quite honest,” Umile said. “It was as good a win as we’ve had in a while.”

All things pointed to a Northeastern win through two periods. The Huskies twice held two-goal leads in the first and second periods. The Wildcats were finding chances, but couldn’t beat Northeastern netminder Ryan Ruck. When they did, UNH hit two posts and one crossbar.

The Wildcats had one power play chance in the second period. They possessed the puck well and put four shots on net but couldn’t get one through. Tyler Kelleher had a wide open look that would have tied the game, but his shot hit the nearside post.

“We did everything but score on that power play,” Umile said. “We hit the pipe twice, moved the puck well, but we couldn’t score on that one.”

Kelleher, the nation’s top scorer with 40 points, had a quiet night with one shot on goal. But where the senior forward couldn’t produce, his younger teammates picked it up.

Liam Blackburn assisted on three goals and won 14 of 20 faceoffs. His most crucial win at the dot came in the offensive end with 6:37 on the clock. Blackburn drew the puck back to Grasso, who wristed a shot past Ruck’s blocker top-shelf to tie the game, 3-3.

“Burnsy was phenomenal on draws tonight,” Grasso said of his linemate. “I just happened to be fortunate enough to get the shot off.”

Shane Eiserman hit a post four minutes later, recovered the puck and passed it to Cleland at the left point. Cleland fired a slap shot that deflected somewhere off Vela and into the goal for a 4-3 lead.

“Cleland just put it on net and I just happened to be standing there and it just trickled in,” Vela said. “I thought it went off my leg, I don’t know if it hit someone else ... it was a good bounce and that’s was what our team needed.”

UNH was down 2-1 after the first period. Danny Tirone, who has been a consistently solid force between the pipes for the Wildcats this season, slipped onto his backside while moving across the crease to address Zach Aston-Reese as he cruised across the blue line with defenders trailing. Aston-Reese, the top goal scorer in the country, hit the open net with his 20th goal in as many games, 4:18 into the period.

The Huskies added a second goal to put UNH in a familiar 2-0 hole early. This one came on a one-time shot set up by Eric Williams across the slot to John Stevens, who beat Tirone’s blocker.

The Wildcats were able to stem Northeastern’s offensive flurry quickly, and it was the freshmen line once again finding the net for UNH. Moving in toward the net, Blackburn slid a pass through traffic to Brendan van Riemsdyk. The winger held the puck for half a second and wristed it past Ruck to give the Wildcats their first goal.

Northeastern regained its two-goal lead in the second period on Aston-Reese’s second goal of the night, this one on the power play while Blackburn served a tripping penalty.

The Huskies were 1:22 into their power play and had spent all of it in the Wildcats’ end. Vela finally got his stick on the puck, but his attempt at a backhand clear was sent into the chest of John Stevens. The puck dribbled onto Aston-Reese’s stick and he sent it past Tirone.

Jason Salvaggio cashed in on a three-on-one opportunity 3 later to get UNH back within a goal. Salvaggio carried the puck across the blue line and dished it backhand to McNicholas as Anthony Wyse trailed behind them. McNicholas sent it back to Salvaggio across the crease for a backdoor goal.

The Wildcats and Huskies meet again Saturday at Fenway Park, with puck drop set for 5:30 p.m. For Grasso – and probably several of his teammates – it will be his first time playing an outdoor game.

It won’t be the first time at Fenway for the Ankeny, Iowa, native, though.

“I’ve been there once a few years back just to watch a baseball game,” he said, “but it will be a whole other monster from that.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3339, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)

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