Durham, NH -- Matt Willows' shorthanded goal with 3:53 to play in the second period was the difference in the game as the University of New Hampshire skated to a 5-2 victory over Notre Dame in front of 6,501 at the sold-out Whittemore Center.
The win came as a direct result of a total team effort from a UNH squad that has been decimated with injuries to key players in recent weeks.
"It was awesome. The whole weekend was great. The way they competed and they did everything they had to do. They had a will to win. The guys played hard and I'm really proud of how we played," said UNH coach Dick Umile.
"All weekend the guys worked their butts off," said senior captain Eric Knodel. "We won every battle in the corner and blocked every shot," added the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect.
Maxim Gaudreault finished off a beautiful feed from Tyler Kelleher on a two-on-one to give the Wildcats the lead 10:21 into the game. Kelleher drew the defender and Notre Dame goaltender Steven Summerhays over to the side before dishing it to Gaudreault who was able to slide it into an open net.
Mario Lucia evened the score at one with 2:33 left in the first period when he sniped a quick one-timer over the blocker of UNH goaltender Casey DeSmith. The goal came as a result of a nice give-and-go with Vince Hinostroza.
"The goal that Lucia scored might have been the best goal I've ever seen scored. He roofed in the upper hand corner was a pro shot," said Umile.
UNH regained its lead 3:33 into the second period on a very similar goal to the first score. Dalton Speelman jammed the puck home from the goalmouth after being the recipient of a nice saucer pass from Matt Willows on an odd-man rush.
Notre Dame once again evened the score with 6:34 to play in the second period when T.J. Tynan banged home a shot from in tight on a quick feed from the corner by Hinostroza. Lucia picked up the secondary assist.
A shorthanded goal gave the Wildcats a 3-2 lead heading into the second intermission. Matt Willows cut in hard from the left side, switching from backhand to forehand before sliding it past Summerhays. Kevin Goumas and Eric Knodel set up the 13 goal of the season for Willows who had just eight goals in his first two seasons.
"It was a good play. [Kevin and Eric] got the puck. They got me the puck. I just drove wide and kept going until I got around them. I got around the goalie and just put it in," said Willows. "I'm always thinking goal," joked the junior when asked what he was thinking.
The goal sparked the Wildcats to finish strong as much as it had a negative impact on the Fighting Irish.
"It's huge. It's very demoralizing when you're on the other end of it. It puts them on edge on their power play. It gets the momentum going the other way. We took the energy and moved forward with it," said Umile.
"It was huge. It's huge to just kill penalties. It's a huge momentum swing. To get a goal on a penalty kill is an even bigger momentum swing. It was good and we fed off it," added Willows.
"A shorthanded goal is just a backbreaker. It is unacceptable really. Our power play has been doing well this month, but this weekend was a problem," said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson.
In addition to the shorthanded goal the Wildcats successfully killed five Notre Dame penalties in the middle frame.
"Our penalty kill was great. Obviously it had to be pretty good in the second period. I think we had more opportunities shorthanded than we did five-on-five," said Umile.
Collin MacDonald gave UNH some breathing room when he went hard to the net after receiving a pass at the left blue line. He lost control of the puck as he was charging the net, but it trickled past Summerhays to give the Wildcats a 4-2 lead with 11:20 remaining in the game.
Kevin Goumas added an empty-net goal to further ice the game for the Wildcats.
DeSmith has really regained his form the past few weeks and was on top of his game once again Saturday. The Rochester, NH native made 32 saves to finish with 70 on the weekend.
"DeSmith was great. He's playing right where we want him to play. It's what he did last year that first half. He's playing with an awful lot of confidence. We're going with him and he's running with it," explained Umile.
The result was particularly beneficial to the Wildcats in both the Hockey East standings and the Pairwise Rankings.
"It was an opportunity for us to get back in the hunt nationally and move up in Hockey East," Umile emphasized.
Notre Dame (15-10-1) hosts Maine next weekend in a two-game series at the Compton Family Ice Arena while New Hampshire (15-13-1) continues its home stand with a pair against Vermont.