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No Case of Senioritis for UNH

Ah, mid-March. That time of year when seniors at most universities go on spring break and then begin to stagger toward the finish line of their collegiate careers. A point at which the work ethic of many top-performing upperclassmen becomes abysmal.

It’s called “senioritis.” But somehow the UNH hockey team is avoiding it. In fact, quite the opposite: in tonight’s 6-2 Hockey East semifinal victory over Providence College, three unlikely senior suspects paved the way on the Wildcat scoresheet.

Between the three of them, seniors Steve O’Brien, Christian Bragnalo, and Chad Onufrechuk came into tonight’s game combining for an underwhelming total of 18 goals in 354 collegiate games. But they can’t be judged by how many times they’ve lit the lamp.

“Those guys are the heart and soul of our team,” said sophomore goalie Ty Conklin of his three unheralded teammates. “Maybe those guys don’t score as much points or get the most news coverage, but they’re as important as anybody on the team.”

After a frankly grim first period in which the Wildcats were outshot by a startling total of 11-3, it was the seniors who spoke up in the locker room.

“They calmed us down,” Conklin said. “They’re not rah-rah-rah, rant and rave guys, but when they get up to speak, everybody listens.”

Off-the-ice leadership is expected from all the seniors. Yet the Wildcats might not have beaten the tenacious Friars Friday night without a little unexpected offensive help from this particular trio.

Playing four-on-four early in the second period, co-captain O’Brien notched the first goal in a scoreless game that the Wildcats basically had survived up until that point.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be playing alongside the nation’s leading scorer and probable Hobey Baker Award winner, co-captain Jason Krog.

“When I come down like that and get into the play, [Krog] sees the ice so well,” O’Brien said. “A lot of times he’ll pull up and look for the trailing defenseman. So I tried to sneak in, and he put it on my tape.”

O’Brien’s slapshot went through Friar goalie Boyd Ballard’s glove for a 1-0 lead. It was just O’Brien’s eighth collegiate goal in 139 games. For that matter, it was only the Wildcats fifth shot of the game.

The next unlikely candidate to score found the net just two minutes, 12 seconds and one shot later, when Bragnalo notched a power-play goal to give UNH a 2-0 advantage.

Bragnalo and fellow defenseman Dan Enders relayed the puck from point to point with the man advantage until Bragnalo fired a slapshot through a screen. For the senior from Thunder Bay, Ont., it was just the fourth goal of a 130-game collegiate career.

“It’s nice to score goals, but my job is to play defense and move the puck,” Bragnalo said. “If I chip in one now and then, that’s great.”

After Mike Omicioli’s shorthanded goal drew Providence within striking distance once again, Onufrechuk stepped up as the next improbable senior to score a goal.

John Sadowski teed it up for Onufrechuk. The senior from Alberta wheeled awkwardly before backhanding the puck blindly at the net, slipping it under Ballard for what proved to be the game-winning goal in the last minute of the period. It was Onufrechuk’s ninth collegiate goal in 86 games played.

“It’s nice every once in a while to chip in and help out our first line,” said Onufrechuk, who previously played with Krog for two years on the Chilliwack Chiefs (BCJHL). “They usually carry the burden offensively.”

It was a pleasant turns of events for the right wing, who played only five games during his sophomore season.

“I was just in and out of the lineup, and I think we got on a big winning streak that year,” Onufrechuk said. “We won like 15 or 17 games in a row, and we kind of stayed with the same lineup the whole time, so that kind of translated to the rest of the season.

“It was disappointing, but I just stuck with it and things started to turn around after that.”

Just so those in attendance didn’t think that they were watching a playoff game in some alternate universe, UNH reverted to form in the third period with goals from Krog and high-scoring freshman Darren Haydar.

But the contributions of these three seniors were an encouraging sign for a team with a legitimate shot at a national championship. You can keep the spring break in Cancun and the lazy afternoons throwing a frisbee. No senioritis epidemic here.

“Not on this team,” O’Brien said. “We’ve got a kid like Jason Krog who’s probably going to go right to the pros next year, and he’s working his tail off every day. Everybody else follows suit.

“Nobody’s thinking about the future; they’re thinking about right now.”

Of course, there is still one warm-weather destination that the Wildcats hope to add to their spring itinerary — a trip to sunny Anaheim, Calif., for the Frozen Four. And maybe a national championship.

“We got so close last year that everybody’s really focused now,” Onufrechuk said. “We know it’s an attainable goal.”

Bellefeuille Gets Help From Above

Given that Boston College hockey fans have been known to chant “We’ve Got Jesus!” at their team’s games, the Golden Eagles were surprisingly overdue for a little help from above.

Not from the heavens — from the video replay booth.

After having a goal taken away after video review in last year’s national championship Game and in this year’s Beanpot tournament, BC was awarded goals on two occasions following review by official Jim Villandry, who was stationed at the stratospheric level of the FleetCenter for BC’s Hockey East semifinal game against Maine.

In particular, the video gods were smiling on Blake Bellefeuille, who was credited with a goal in both instances. A third-period Maine goal was reviewed from above and also ruled good, making the score 2-1 BC in the video game as well as 3-2 in the hockey game.

This was not the first bit of good fortune in Bellefeuille’s career. The junior from Framingham, Mass., ended his high school career as the top scorer in Massachusetts Division I history, with 120 goals and 182 assists for 302 points. Bellefeuille was a much-ballyhooed recruit for the Eagles and The Hockey News touted him as one of the Top 50 North American players in his draft year.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the draft podium. Despite averaging just over a point per game in his freshman season and scoring four shorthanded goals to boot, scouts apparently soured on the Eagle freshman. To the surprise of many, Bellefeuille was not drafted at all.

Rather than dwell on that disappointment, the 5-foot-10 centerman has tried to use it as motivation.

“Definitely every day I come to practice I just work my hardest,” Bellefeuille said. “When you practice with great players like Farkas, Gionta, Mottau, they just make you better players.

“In games, we play great teams; we have a great league. I just try to give it 100 percent, and it’s been pretty fortunate for me.”

Fortunate enough for Bellefeuille to now rank among the top power-play goal scorers in college hockey. His two power-play goals tonight give him 13 for the season, which should put him at least fourth nationwide pending the outcome of other playoff games.

His first one tonight wasn’t exactly pretty. After considerable review, the ruling from above was that a Black Bear had kicked the puck in his own net.

“I was kind of falling down and fortunately I think it hit off one of the Maine defender’s skates. We got a lucky bounce there.”

In contrast, Bellefeuille’s second goal was a nice bit of sharpshooting.

“We had some traffic out in front, and somebody wristed it to the net,” he said. “I just tried to beat my guy back to the front. There was a big pile-up in front and I went around the pile and had a lane.

“There was a loose puck there, and I backhanded it into the net.”

It was a frustrating play for Maine: Gionta was definitely in the crease, but he was ruled to be there legally because Black Bear goalie Alfie Michaud was out of the crease when Gionta entered it.

For good measure, Bellefeuille assisted on the other BC goal when he won a defensive-end faceoff, leading to a BC breakout and a goal for Andy Powers. Bellefeuille now has 22 goals and 21 assists for the season. Only Gionta and Farkas have scored more for BC in 1998-1999.

“I’m just glad we got the win,” Bellefeuille said.

Given the void left when Marty Reasoner chose to go pro with the St. Louis Blues after his junior season last year, the Eagles need someone like Bellefeuille to fill the role of scoring key goals in big games.

So far, so good.