Durham, NH- Mike Souza’s debut season as New Hampshire’s Head Hockey Coach has been filled with growing pains. Through their first ten games this season, the Wildcats only had one victory but were in almost every game. Every final margin has been one or zero except for two and five UNH games have gone to overtime. After enjoying turkey and time off the ice on Thursday, UNH returned to the ice to face 19th ranked Miami(OH) for the first time since the 2011 NCAA Tournament. The result was a thriller that reinforced the trends demonstrated through the first ten UNH games, both good and bad.
The opening period was up-tempo and quick with multiple long stretches of continuous play. It was entertaining for all in attendance and on the ice. In the back-and-forth, the hosts broke the ice. Eric Esposito broke into the Miami defensive end and fired a shot towards the Redhawk net. Wildcat defenseman Matt Dawson, filling in for suspended star Max Gildon, tipped the puck down and through Ryan Larkin for the first tally of the night.
Miami answered only 1:11 later when Josh Melnick fielded a fortunate bounce off the end boards and deposited the puck behind Ty Taylor. Still, UNH pressed on the offensive end and capitalized on a Brian Hawkinson hooking minor. Patrick Grasso threw the puck on Larkin and Angus Crookshank cleaned up the mess in front for a 2-1 lead before intermission.
UNH controlled the majority of the second period, outshooting Miami 10-6. Fortunately for the guests from Oxford, Larkin held the prowling cats at bay. His offense nearly had the equalizer. Casey Gilling pounced on a puck that ate up Taylor late in the frame. However, officials overruled the goal because Karch Bachman was called for goaltender interference in the crease. UNH maintained their lead into the third period.
Within the first five minutes of the third, all nightmarish themes of the Wildcat season came into full view. Chris Miller took a tripping minor and Bachman atoned for his earlier mistake by tying the game 2:34 into the frame. Only 1:34 later, Ben Lown tracked a pin-balling puck, controlled it, and roofed the shot on Taylor to give Miami their first lead of the night.
The Wildcats appeared doomed to another painful defeat on account of a stalling offense and bad bounces. Yet, Souza’s troops showed no quit and went after the tying goal. Ty Taylor only faced six more shots after Miami’s goals but made critical saves to keep his team afloat for a last-second push. Souza pulled Taylor for an extra attacker and was rewarded. Eric Esposito swooped behind the net with control of the puck. He feathered a pass to the slot for Liam Blackburn, and the Junior from Prince George, British Columbia, potted the equalizer with 33.2 seconds left on the clock.
The five minutes of extra skating brought more thrills and some unfortunate hits. Each team got three shots on net and each goaltender made timely and high quality saves. As regulation wound down, New Hampshire killed off the final RedHawk push, In the final seconds, Benton Maass raced Karch Bachman to secure an icing call. Bachman put one final push on Maass and crushed the UNH star into the boards. Both players went down hard and left for the locker room before the final buzzer. Ironically, Bachman took the harder end of the hit but was called for a boarding minor. It didn’t affect the scoring much, as Miami won the final face-off and closed the night with a 3-3 tie.
Miami head coach Enrico Blasi was thoughtful and calm after the game.
“Interesting game,” Blasi said. “I thought they took it to us the better part of the first and second periods. I thought we had a couple of good shifts in the third. We were opportunistic on our goals. Both goaltenders made some big saves. I think to win in college hockey, you have to have a 60-minute performance where you’re playing the game the right way. I’m not sure I can tell you that we did that tonight.”
Miami takes their first tie this season and their record goes to 9-5-1.
Mike Souza was simultaneously relieved with the tie, happy with the effort, but still disappointed with the need for a comeback.
“Gotta figure out a way to close out some third periods,” Souza said. “Best way to close out a team is to build on the lead. They’re a top-20 team. I’m sure they’re disappointed they didn’t come out of here with a win. I’ve said all year that we’ve got a resilient group. We’ve just gotta figure out a way to learn to win. And when we learn to win, I think we’re doing a lot of good things.”
UNH’s record runs to 1-6-4. The teams conclude their series on Saturday night. Puck drops at 7 pm at the Whittimore Center. UNH resumes conference play next week with a home-and-home with Providence while Miami returns to Oxford with an NCHC series with top-ranked St. Cloud State next weekend.