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NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Sometimes you just know it’s your night.
For Mike McNicholas and his New Hampshire Wildcats, it might not have taken long to understand Sunday was their night.
Just 74 seconds into the winner-take-all Game 3, McNicholas picked up a puck with a wide-open net, firing it home to give UNH the lead. It was the first of three first-period goals for the Wildcats, who withstood a furious comeback attempt from host Merrimack, surviving for a 5-2 victory to clinch the Hockey East first-round series.
The reason McNicholas had a wide-open net was a bit of foreshadowing of the night for the Warriors. A Merrimack defender locked skates with Warriors netminder Collin Delia, knocking him to the ground.
The fast start — which included goals by Frankie Cefalu and Patrick Grasso sandwiched around a Hampus Gustafsson tally — gave the Wildcats the confidence they needed to complete the series comeback. UNH lost the opener of the series on Friday, 4-0, before matching that score in Saturday’s Game 2.
“It’s great to come out and score quick, just for our confidence,” said UNH coach Dick Umile, whose team lives to see another day and will face top-seeded UMass Lowell in the quarterfinals next weekend. “Coming into the weekend we lacked confidence until last night. We got that first goal, we got that confidence.”
To come back and win the series showed intestinal fortitude for the Wildcats. No one would blame the Wildcats if they mailed it in following Friday’s shutout loss.
This was a team that began the season hot and was in the top four in the Hockey East standings at the New Year. But a downward spiral in which UNH finished its Hockey East slate 2-10-3 in its final 15 games ripped any semblance of confidence away from the club heading to the postseason.
Asked if there were any magic moments between Friday and Saturday, Umile laughed.
“The magic moments are puck saves and some pretty big goals,” Umile said. “Those are the magic moments.”
If there actually was magic for UNH, it was between the pipes. A night after a 44-save shutout, Danny Tirone stopped 44 more Merrimack shots on Sunday. That included 17 in the third, many coming after Merrimack drew within two at 4-2 at the 7:54 mark.
“You know it’s never over in this building,” Umile said. “They play hard. They put a lot of pressure on you and Tirone stood tall.”
Moving on to face the tournament top seed will be a difficult task for the Wildcats. But Umile thinks that this weekend could go a long way in helping his club.
“For everyone in that locker room, it’s been a long season,” said Umile. “They’re a good group to coach. It was frustrating. We found ways to lose games. We just couldn’t win games.
“This weekend, we turned it around. It’s a new season and we’ve got some confidence.”
No. 1 Bemidji State 3, No. 8 Northern Michigan 1
Goals 34 seconds apart by Myles Fitzgerald and Brendan Harms in the first period gave the host Beavers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Brock Maschmeyer pulled the Wildcats within a goal at 17:40 of the second but never mustered the equalizer. Hobey Baker Award hopeful Michael Bitzer stopped 19 of the 20 shots he faced for his 22nd win of the season. The Beavers will host Bowling Green in the WCHA semifinals next weekend.
Atlantic Hockey first round
No. 11 Niagara 4, No. 6 Rochester Institute of Technology 1
Despite winning just three games during the regular season, Niagara mustered two road victories in its first-round playoff series against RIT to advance to the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals. The Purple Eagles started fast as Kris Spriggs and Sam Rennaker each scored before the game was four minutes old. Although RIT’s Jordan Peacock pulled the Tigers within a goal at the five-minute mark of the second, Niagara regained the two-goal cushion on Stanislav Dzakhov’s tally at 5:10 of the third and then buried an empty-netter with 3:04 left. Niagara goaltender Jackson Teichroeb was a major difference-maker, stopping 41 shots in the win. The Purple Eagles will face crosstown rival and top seed Canisius in the AHC quarterfinals.
No. 8 Bentley 3, No. 9 Sacred Heart 2 (2OT)
Ryner Gorowsky scored 30 seconds into the second overtime to send Bentley into the second round. Sacred Heart forced overtime on Ruslan Rakhmatov’s equalizer with 7:07 remaining. Pioneers forward Jordan Minello opened the scoring at 12:42 of the first. But a short-handed goal by Max French with 35 seconds left in the first evened things. Host Bentley took its first lead at 8:55 of the second on a Matt Riggleman goal. Bentley will travel to play Air Force next weekend in the AHC quarterfinals.
ECAC Hockey first round
No. 7 Princeton 2, No. 10 Colgate 1
A night after the host Tigers scored in the final second of regulation to force overtime and avoid elimination, they completed the miracle comeback. Despite falling behind early, Princeton got goals from Derek Topatigh on the power play in the first and Ryan Kuffner in the second. That’s all the Tigers needed as Colton Phinney stopped 35 shots.