BU Defeats UNH to Return to Hockey East Title Game
By Pat O’Rourke
BU News Service
A hot team riding a hot goaltender is never a welcome site. Come postseason, it can be the source of nightmares.
The BU men’s hockey team faced one of the hottest team in the nation Friday night in a UNH Wildcats team that had won nine of its previous ten games. They had just knocked off preseason Hockey East favorite Providence in the quarterfinals, where goaltender Danny Tirone outdueled Hockey East first-team netminder Jon Gilles in the three-game upset.
The Terriers were able to weather the storm, coming out with a 4-1 victory to advance to the Hockey East championship game for the first time in two years. They will face UMass-Lowell Saturday night, seeking their first conference title since 2009.
“Really proud of our guys,” said head coach David Quinn. “Now we have an opportunity to play for the league championship, which isn’t easy to do.”
UNH came as advertised. Quinn went as far to say it was the toughest team they had faced all season. The Wildcats came out hard, pushing the pace and getting good pressure and opportunities on Terriers goaltender Matt O’Connor, who made 32 saves in the winning effort.
“I thought in the first 10 minutes they could’ve had three goals,” said Quinn. “I thought they were really setting the tempo. In the three games we’ve played [at the TD Garden] so far, the first period has really hurt us. I don’t know if it’s nerves, or what. But if it wasn’t for [O’Connor] that game could’ve got out of control in a hurry.
The Wildcats (19-19-2) drew first blood 14:34 into the first period, when Terriers defenseman Brandon Hickey lost his feet deep in the BU zone. Hickey turned the puck over to UNH forward Andrew Poturalski. Hickey’s defensive partner Brandon Fortunato overskated the play, leaving Wildcat forward Tyler Kelleher all alone in the big ice. Kelleher took the pass from Poturalski before winning the one-on-one battle with O’Connor.
“I thought we were real nervous,” said Quinn of the first period. “I thought we were standing around, watching too much, not making passes, not hitting anybody, not skating fast, and I think a lot of that had to do with UNH too.”
Despite the bad opening 20 minutes, the Terriers (24-7-5) were able to go to the dressing room on a high note, as BU tied the score with 2:22 remaining in the period. BU forward Cason Hohmann engaged in a one-on-one battle with UNH defenseman Ryan Randall to beat out the icing, drew a boarding penalty after the icing call was waved off. BU defenseman Matt Grzelcyk came on the ice as the extra attacker with the penalty delayed. Fellow blueliner John MacLeod found the Terriers captain at the left point, who then found Hohmann camped out down low near the goal line. Hohmann took the pass before burying the shot attempt for his ninth goal of the season.
“I got hammered, didn’t really see where the puck went,” said Hohmann. “I looked up, and [Grzelcyk] had it, and I just went to the back door and [Grzelcyk] made a great play.”
The Terriers carried the momentum into the second. UNH didn’t get a shot on net until 3:11 into the middle 20, as BU carried the play for much of the period. They were rewarded for their efforts at 9:53 of the period, when Terriers forward Chase Phelps scored his second goal of the season on the rebound of a Nick Roberto wrap-around attempt.
The goal was Phelps’ first goal since Nov. 29. The tally that proved to be the game-winner, it was another instance of timely offense from the team’s fourth line, which has done a good job all season of protecting pucks, making timely shifts, and providing offense at key moments.
“I thought all four lines contributed tonight and it truly was a team effort” said Quinn.
Nursing the one-goal lead and needing insurance in the third period, the team’s top line of Jack Eichel, Danny O’Regan, and Evan Rodrigues found their way onto the scoresheet, as they have so many times this year.
Breaking out of the defensive zone, UNH forward Matt Willows made an outlet pass that was intercepted by Eichel, who took the puck down into the zone. Wrestled off the puck, O’Regan took the loose rubber before dishing it to Rodrigues, camped in front of the net. Rodrigues’ bid was saved by Tirone, but Eichel put home the rebound for his 21st goal of the season.
The freshman phenom got the fired up the busses for UNH with 2:27 to go in the game, when he again put home a Rodrigues rebound — this time on an empty-netter that hit off the post.
With the two goals, Eichel now has 63 points on the season. He becomes the first freshman to score 63 points in a season since Ryan Carter did so for the late great Iona hockey program in 1998-99. He has points in 11 straight games (7-16–23), with five consecutive multi-point contests.
Up next for the Terriers is UMass-Lowell, who defeated Vermont, 4-1, in the first of two penultimate games played at the TD Garden Friday night. BU has faced Lowell in each of their last two Hockey East title tilts.
They defeated the River Hawks, led by former BU assistant Blaise MacDonald, 1-0, in 2009. They returned the favor in 2013, this time led by Norm Bazin, in a 1-0 final in what was Jack Parker’s final game behind the BU bench.
The Terriers swept the season series in 2014-15, by scores of 4-3 and 5-2, respectively.
“They’re really hard-working, they’re really skilled, we should be watching out for that,” said Hohmann. “Last memory of them here was in the championship game two years ago [which BU lost]. So I just can’t wait to go out there and play these guys again.”