Winning this Hockey East semifinal game was a small step for the University of New Hampshire. Competing valiantly in a losing effort in their first FleetCenter appearance represented the end of a giant leap for the University of Massachusetts hockey program.

Despite trailing twice by two goals to the No. 3 team in the nation, the Minutemen battled back to tie the game twice–tying the Hockey East record with two goals in ten seconds to knot the game, 4-4, midway through the period. In the end, though, the favored Wildcats won it when Preston Callander scored the game-winner with 2:59 remaining, giving UNH a berth in the Hockey East Championship Game on Saturday night.

Five different goal scorers lit the lamp for the Wildcats (24-7-6), while freshman Stephen Werner picked up two goals and an assist in a losing effort for the Minutemen (19-17-10), who had trailed 2-0 after one and 4-2 with 13 minutes remaining.

“I’m happy that after they scored those first two goals that we didn’t melt; it didn’t turn into a big runaway,” Minuteman coach Don “Toot” Cahoon said. “I’m not surprised by that because we’ve lived by one credo all season long: ‘Let’s not play the scoreboard, boys, let’s just play the game.’ I think our guys really bought into that and played hard throughout the night and competed.

“Obviously we’re disappointed with the result, but at the same time we’re very proud of this young and clearly ambitious group of people,” added Cahoon. “They’ve given us the foundation for a respectable program.”

Wildcat Coach Dick Umile echoed that sentiment. “First let me congratulate the UMass hockey team and Coach Cahoon,” he said. “Obviously we were very fortunate to win that hockey game–it was back and forth. We had them a few times by a couple of goals, and they kept battling back.”

For Minutemen captain Tim Turner, his last college hockey game proved to be one of the proudest after some lean years in [nl]Amherst. “I can’t say enough about our newcomers, our freshman and sophomore classes,” Turner said. “It’s a privilege for me to be on the same ice as those guys. To come back from two down twice to UNH is amazing to me.”

The first 17 minutes of the game looked good for the Minutemen, as the teams played cautiously without many scoring opportunities either way. The Wildcat fans started to get into it when Colin Hemingway’s effort gave them a pair of shorthanded bids, and UNH carried that momentum into their first power play of the game.

Hemingway had a good chance early on in the man advantage, but the Wildcats didn’t convert until 17:06. After Tim Turner fanned on a clearing chance, UNH kept the puck in the zone for the next half-minute before scoring. Kevin Truelson’s right-point slapshot was redirected down and in by Tim Horst in the slot for the 1-0 lead.

If the Minutemen had looked composed up till that point, they unraveled for the rest of the period. Sixty-two seconds after the goal, UNH scored again when a puck squirted out from a pair of players near the boards and went to Josh Prudden near the left-wing face-off dot. The senior centerman took a big whack at it and surprisingly pinpointed the shot just under the crossbar.

It could have been worse: Steve Saviano and Sean Collins each had near misses in the period’s last 20 seconds.

Cahoon apparently managed to calm the troops down between periods; the Minutemen came out and played with poise. They got on the board on a terrific individual effort by Werner.

Picking up the puck just outside his own blue line, Werner rushed up the ice, put on a little move to make defenseman Brian Yandle fall down on the left-wing side, then patiently cut across the zone until Tyson Teplitsky went down. Werner skated him around him before snapping a shot from the right-wing faceoff circle that grazed the far post to beat Michael Ayers at 8:24.

Unlike the first period, Massachusetts continued to get the better of the scoring chances before tying it up when they had a power play for all of 30 seconds. Sophomore defenseman Jeff Lang took a shot from the right-wing side, but a UNH defender blocked it. The puck caromed across to Greg Mauldin on the left-wing side, and he buried the shot to tie it up at 14:40.

Wildcat fans were displeased with referee Scott Hansen at 17:52 when he ruled that UNH put the puck in the net after a whistle. Winer had squeezed the puck for a full second before losing hold on it, so it was hard to fault Hanson on the call.

The Wildcats took the lead at 3:17 of the third. After an innocuous dumping of the puck into the zone, Winer stopped it behind the net and played it into the corner. Wildcat captain Patrick Foley was quick to pounce on the puck and center it to Tyler Scott trailing the play. Winer hadn’t managed to get back into position, and Scott had a target of almost half the net for an easy one.

Tenacious forechecking by Nathan Martz and Saviano made it 4-2. The puck changed hands a few times in the UMass zone, but the Wildcat linemates won a few individual battles for the puck, culminating in a quick-release shot and goal for Saviano at 6:43.

Just when it looked like curtains for the Minutemen, they electrified the crowd by tying the game with two goals in ten seconds. With Teplitsky in the box for cross-checking, Massachusetts put on an exhibition on the power play, barely letting UNH touch the puck. Finally, Werner got his second of the night when Ayers couldn’t quite squeeze a shot from the point–the freshman poked it home to give his team hope.

It also gave his coach a chance to play a hunch. “Rarely do I put my White Line–which is Turner and Warner and Capraro–on the ice after we score a goal; usually I try to follow that up with a little more defensively-oriented line,” said Cahoon. “But in this situation I thought it might be an opportunity to go right back on the offensive and catch them flat-footed.”

Off the subsequent faceoff, the glimmer of hope quickly became a possible dream. Centerman Mike Warner raced in on the left wing and crossed to Tim Turner, who buried a high wrister to set the crowd into delirium at 9:50.

“Probably one of the best goals I’ve ever scored,” Turner said. “To score that and watch it go into the net and see the crowd rise to their feet was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been in.”

Then it was time for the Wildcats to show off their considerable poise, resolve, and senior leadership. “The guys worked really hard, got up by two, and then it disappeared very quickly–bad coverage on the faceoff–but they stayed composed,” Umile said. “I give a lot of credit to our seniors and our goaltender.

“We knew that they were going to play hard, and we had to regroup,” added Callander.

With just 2:59 left, UNH went ahead. Justin Aikins carried the puck in on the left-wing side before nudging it to Callander. Minuteman defenseman Nick Kuiper couldn’t quite reach the pass to break up the play, and Callander buried it to make it 5-4.

The FleetCenter crowd definitely got their money’s worth with this one.