New Hampshire ensured that the Northeast Regional Finals will be an all-Hockey East affair. The Wildcats came from behind to defeat Denver 5-2 Friday night at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, NH.
The win could have come at a price for UNH. Two of the team's top forwards, junior Kevin Goumas and sophomore Grayson Downing both left the game with head injuries. Head coach Dick Umile said both players will be re-evaluated Saturday morning.
The Wildcats were down for much of the first half of the game, but two power play strikes in the last six minutes of the second period propelled UNH to the victory.
Denver struck first just 2:24 into the game when sophomore Daniel Doremus crashed the net to bang home a rebound of a Larkin Jacobson shot. Matt Tabrum picked up the other helper on the goal.
UNH accelerated the pace of its play right after falling behind. Austin Block had a great chance that Denver goalie Juho Olkinuora got a stick on. Just about a minute after that sophomore forward Casey Thrush connected on his own rebound from the right side. Defensemen Brett Pesce and Trevor van Riemsdyk assisted on the goal at 5:39.
With just under two minutes to play in the first period Denver regained the lead when the Shore brothers connected for a tally. Nick Shore received the puck at the blue line, spun around and blasted a slap shot that UNH sophomore goalie Casey DeSmith kicked out. The puck squirted out to the younger brother, Quentin, who snapped it into the top corner over DeSmith's glove.
Towards the end of the first period the physical play picked up with a scrum in front of the UNH net leading to penalties called. The physical play continued in the second period with the score staying the way it was until UNH took advantage of a power play.
On the man advantage, van Riemsdyk patiently waited at the blue line until he saw his opening. He took a wrist shot from the point that beat Olkinuora who must have been screened on the play. The Wildcats are now 6-0-2 when the Middletown, NJ native scores. The goal, at 14:34 of the second period, was asisted by Eric Knodel and Goumas.
With the period winding down and UNH on another man advantage, Dalton Speelman gave the Wildcats the lead and plenty of momentum heading into the final period. He was parked just to the right of the net when he one-timed the puck off a rebound right past Olkinuora.
"That was a big momentum boost for them," said Denver coach George Gwozdecky, referring to the two goals at the end of the second period that energized the pro-UNH crowd.
The third period started with a bang when Denver's top player, Nick Shore, was ejected from the game following a neutral zone collision with UNH's top player, Kevin Goumas. There was controversy surrounding the decision to go to review to determine the penalty. UNH failed to convert on the five-minute major, but would strike soon after.
Senior John Henrion increased the UNH lead to two at the 8:49 mark of the final period when he rifled in his 15th of the year. The Holden, Mass. native had nine shots on goal in the game.
Thrush would ice the game with an empty-net goal with 2:20 left in the game. The Easton, Md. native had a terrific game in addition to his two goals. He was all over the ice.
UNH's team defense got better as the game went along. It could have been the best the team has played in a while. After allowing 19 shots in the first period, the Wildcats only allowed 14 in the final two stanzas.
"We played great team defense after the first period. We gave up way too many shots in the first period. We made a little bit of an adjustment. We got good good offense off of transition and the forwards bought into play defense," said Umile.
DeSmith might have wanted those rebound goals back in the first period, but he got better as the game went along. Umile was very pleased to talk about the success of his goaltender. "He played great. He made some huge saves. Casey plays better when he gets a lot of shots and gets into the game," said Umile.
Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.