The race is on in Hockey East and with a 4-3 win at Massachusetts, New Hampshire has itself in the driver’s seat.
“It’s a huge win for us,” UNH coach Dick Umile said. “The guys played a really good game against a great team.”
Josh Prudden scored the game winner that gave the Wildcats sole possession of first place.
Prudden jumped off the bench to join a three on one with Lanny Gare and Colin Hemingway at 8:12 of the third period. Hemingway went to the net to take out the defenseman and Gare threaded the needle to Prudden for a tip into the yawning net.
The goal gave UNH a two-goal advantage just under four minutes after Jim Abbott broke a 2-2 tie.
Abbott stripped Sean Regan in the offensive zone and caught Waidlich off guard by quickly slicing in front and sliding the puck off the far post and in.
“We turned the puck over, one of the big turnovers in the game,” UMass coach Don Cahoon said. “We were in a good defensive posture, but we got turned around in our defensive posture and the puck rolled to the net.”
“That was a huge goal to come right back for us,” Umile said.
Abbott’s goal acted as a quick retort to UMass equalizer just 27 seconds earlier. Tim Vitek sped into the offensive zone on the right wing, pivoted and fed Thomas Pock coming in late for a one-timer through Mike Ayers’ legs to knot the game at two.
Ayers made just 21 saves on the evening while allowing three goals but he was his best when it mattered most. After Chris Capraro deflected a Marvin Degon slapshot to cut the deficit to 4-3 with 12 minutes left in the third, Ayers turned unbeatable.
Cahoon shortened his bench to three lines over the last five minutes which significantly raised UMass’ offensive pressure. Pock and the dangerous first line of Matt Anderson, Greg Mauldin and Stephen Werner had numerous chances, but Ayers was there to snuff them out.
“They were just throwing it to the net, getting to their points,” Umile said. “That was a credit to them, they put a lot of heat on us.
“With Mike Ayers back there you have to feel confident.”
The Minutemen came out blatantly flat in the second period and UNH took advantage, showering Waidlich with four shots during the opening shift.
Waidlich made 27 saves in his second consecutive and second career start.
“He played really well, and gave us a chance to win,” Cahoon said.
UMass had a chance to retake the momentum with a power play chance at 8:58 but Ayers was again up for the task.
He stopped Tim Turner on two consecutive point blank shots and parried away a Mauldin wrist shot from between the circles. UMass failed to account for Sean Collins jumping on the ice at the conclusion of the advantage, giving him a clear breakaway.
Collins deked to his backhand and tried to lift the puck high but Waidlich got his right pad in front of it.
The Minutemen had another power play under five minutes later but failed to even possess the puck in the offensive zone. Following the power play, New Hampshire countered for its second goal of the game.
Nathan Martz shoveled the puck into the crease from behind the net and Waidlich looked to have it covered. But as three Wildcats rushed the crease referee Jeff Bunyon signaled for the goal. Martz got credit for his eighth of the year to give UNH a 2-1 lead.
Mauldin scored on the first shift of the game to give UMass the early momentum. He gained the zone through the left wing and fed back to Mike Warner for a one-timer. Mike Ayers made the initial pad save but Mauldin swept in and stuffed home the rebound for a 1-0 lead.
The Minutemen continued to carry the play by earning a power play when Saviano pulled down Thomas Pock in the offensive zone.
The man-advantage led to another Mauldin chance from the right faceoff circle that Ayers shrugged over the net. Marvin Degon controlled the carom and fired a snap shot just wide.
Mauldin then took a penalty near the halfway mark that seemed to turn the tide. After Ayers stoned Tim Vitek on a partial breakaway, the Wildcats held the zone for over a minute, testing Waidlich with a pair of looks from inside the circles.
New Hampshire broke through under a minute after the power play ended when a turnover gave high school teammates Sean Collins and Steve Saviano a two-on-one.
UMass defenseman Dusty Demaniuk tried to negate the passing lane but Saviano saucered a pass to his linemate for a tip through Waidlich’s legs.