A controversial Conor O’Neil goal with 26 seconds left in the second period proved the game-winner in a 3-2 Vermont win over New Hampshire. O’Neil crashed the net and was putting the brakes on as Brady Shaw’s shot hit his skate and caromed into the net.
The on-ice call was a goal, but when shown on the video scoreboard while the officials went to replay, UNH fans began to cheer, thinking it would be reversed. The call was upheld, however, and after a scoreless third period the goal stood up as the deciding factor.
“Our player was going hard to the net,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon said. “Good things happen when that occurs. From my perspective, in terms of the way the rules are written, it wasn’t a distinct kicking motion, so it’s a good goal.”
UNH coach Dick Umile argued vociferously at the time, but afterward paid heed to the league’s gag rule and said all the right things.
“It was unfortunate how the winning goal went in because it was a battle,” he said. “[The officials] looked at the video. You go with the call.
“We shouldn’t have gotten ourselves in that position, to be honest.”
When asked, Umile recounted the officials’ explanation of the call. “The player was stopping. It went off his skate and went in.”
The razor-thin margin of victory produced a significant difference in the standings. The two clubs entered the night in a four-way tie for sixth place with teams finishing fifth through eighth earning home ice in the first round of the playoffs.
With Northeastern winning and Connecticut losing on the night, Vermont now is tied with the Huskies for sixth, two points ahead of UConn and UNH. Vermont and UNH complete their weekend series on Saturday.
“You have to try to find points every weekend,” Sneddon said. “But in all honesty, these two points tonight won’t mean that much unless we come out and have a great effort tomorrow night.
“So we’ll quickly put this one away and focus on an opportunity we have tomorrow night.”
Other than the game-winner, all other goals were scored on the power play, a situation that on paper would have favored the Wildcats, who own the top man advantage unit in Hockey East while Vermont’s is ranked last with a next-to-last penalty kill.
The special teams battle, however, was a draw. Both teams scored on a five-on-four and they both capitalized on an extended five-on-three.
“It was a playoff-style hockey game,” Sneddon said. “Both power plays were clicking pretty well. That was a big part of the game.”
Vermont’s penalty killers, however, stopped the vaunted Wildcats power play twice in the third period to seal the win.
For UNH, Umile pointed to his team’s defensive zone play as the key factor.
“We spent too much time in our own end,” he said. “They out-competed us in our own end. We couldn’t get the puck up to our forwards.
“We spent too much time in the defensive zone. … Not enough time in their end.”
Tyler Kelleher’s assist on UNH’s second-period goal gave him his 100th career point, making him the 73rd Wildcat to achieve the feat, but the first junior to do so since Jacob Micflikier and Brett Hemingway in 2005-06.
Kelleher also scored a first-period goal, the only one of the period. At 7:54, Andrew Poturalski broke around a defender and put a hard shot on net. Packy Munson made the save, but the rebound caromed into the slot where Kelleher buried it into the open side.
Vermont came back with three goals in the second, the first two on the man advantage.
Liam Coughlin got the first one little more than two minutes in, taking the puck along the goal line and passing it back into the slot for Kevin Irwin. Irwin shot and Danny Tirone made the save, but Coughlin had crashed the net and stuffed the puck in from the crease.
UNH retook the lead minutes later on a 46-second five-on-three that only needed 14 seconds. The Wildcats moved the puck side-to-side effectively, forcing Munson to make an outstanding save, but seconds later Michael McNicholas deked Munson to the ice then pulled the puck around him and stuffed it into the net.
A mirror image five-on-three power play for Vermont, this one 52 seconds, gave the Catamounts the chance to even the game, 2-2, at 10:16. Mario Puskarich passed right-to-left to Alex Privitera, who one-timed it for his fifth goal, thus setting the stage for O’Neil’s controversial game-winner.