UNH Wildcats Survive and Advance
[North Andover, Mass.] -- The UNH men’s hockey team won 5-2 against the Merrimack College Warriors on Sunday night to wrap up the three-game, weekend series. Tyler Kelleher’s 23rd goal of the season and Danny Tirone 44 saves on Sunday night provided the boost that UNH needed to move on.
After losing the first game on Friday by a score of 4-0, the Wildcats were able to claw back in game two on Saturday leading into a do or die matchup on Sunday.
In Game 1, Merrimack came out firing in front of a sellout crowd at Lawler Rink. The Wildcats shutout loss was only their sixth in 95 postseason games. The Warriors struck first with two goals in the first period coming off uncharacteristic turnovers by the Wildcats. Sam Tavernier scored off a loose puck that defenseman Anthony Wyse could not control at center ice and wristed it past netminder Danny Tirone.
At 15:16 of the first period, Derek Petti registered his 5th goal of the season when a loose puck glided towards Tirone who desperately dove to push it towards the neutral zone. Petti skated around him for the easy empty-netter. The Warriors added an insurance goal in the second period to make it 3-0. A late empty-netter by Tyler Irvine with 3:28 left made it 4-0. Coach Dick Umile and his 10th seed Wildcats were on the brink of elimination heading into game two on Saturday.
Sometimes it comes down to goaltending and UNH saw that from Collin Delia. His 25 saves on Friday helped to secure his third career shutout. On Saturday, the script was flipped with UNH winning 4-0 to force a decisive game three.
UNH went the distance with Merrimack and finally broke Delia's shutout streak at 14:43 of the second period when freshman Patrick Grasso scored his 18th of the year. Sophomore Chris Miller assisted on the play coming off the faceoff setting up for Grasso’s wrister past Delia. Jason Salvaggio then scored his 22nd of the year coming off a pass from behind the net by freshman Brendan van Riemsdyk.
The Wildcats never looked back when in the third period they got a pair of empty net goals to ice the Warriors. The decisive game three was set with momentum tilting toward the UNH bench.
UNH took that momentum and played with it as they struck first in game number three. Only 1:14 in, junior Michael McNicholas cycled to the far side faceoff circle, received a pass from Tyler Kelleher, and wristed one past Delia.
“It is great playing with Tyler, hopefully, he gets the Hobey this year. He has a great hockey sense,” McNicholas said. "It was tough Friday night getting that loss. We knew it was do or die and we came out hard Saturday night and did the same tonight. It shows our character.”
UNH chugged along in the period when at 6:01 Frankie Cefalu scored his first collegiate goal. Senior Jamie Hill was credited with his second assist of the year coming off a Anthony Wyse shot from the near side circle. Cefalu buried the redirected rebound to make it 2-0.
“It was huge to score quickly. That first goal added to our confidence that we had from last night. Tirone was strong in net and we came out in the third and played solid,” head coach Dick Umile said.
Merrimack put a stop to the first-period spree with Hamous Gustafsson’s 15th goal of the year assisted by captain Jared Kolquist. Moving forward in the first, UNH answered when Grasso scored his 19th goal of the year.
The second period remained scoreless and the Wildcats went into the third period up 3-1. They put the pressure on the Warriors and finally scored a long-awaited power play goal. Hobey Baker nominee Tyler Kelleher rang in the third period to make it 4-1.
Merrimack trimmed the lead with 12:06 remaining when Derek Petti pushed one past Tirone. It was 4-2 in the late stages of game three, but Tirone stayed strong in net. Jason Salvaggio scored an empty netter for his 23rd of the year.
Confidence was lacking after Friday night, but Umile thanked his team for hanging tough and captain Matias Cleland for leading the way with his locker room presence and play on the ice.
“A guy like Cleland. He is our leader and our warrior. He is committed to it and got his teammates ready to go to battle where they did not want to see the season end. It has been a frustrating season, but now in the new season, we just won two out of three,” Umile said.
Here are the highlights of UNH's series winning victory over Merrimack:
The Wildcats now move on to the Hockey East Quarterfinals as they challenge the number one-seed UMass-Lowell Riverhawks. UNH lost both contests with Lowell earlier in the year. It will be a challenge, but Umile said, “They are a really good team, last time out they kicked our butt, but earlier in the year we played them tough and we will have to duplicate that moving forward.”
The Wildcats will open up the best-of-three series at the Tsongas Center down in Lowell, Massachusetts Fri. March 10th.