DURHAM — Twice in the past six years, Notre Dame has eliminated the University of New Hampshire from the NCAA men's hockey tournament — and the Fighting Irish came east with designs on effectively doing so once again.
There are still eight weeks until that tourney is even seeded, and almost a quarter of the season remains. But the Wildcats took the Whittemore Center ice Friday night knowing they needed to improve their position (22nd) in the PairWise Rankings to have any shot of being invited without winning their league. And they knew that meant bolstering their resume with impressive wins this weekend and next, in four games against the highly regarded teams of Notre Dame and Vermont.
So far, so good.
After Notre Dame tied the game on a shorthanded tally with less than five minutes to play, UNH answered resiliently by regaining the lead on a Kevin Goumas goal just seconds later, then held on from there to secure what coach Dick Umile called a "huge win," ultimately coming by a count of 4-2.
"That was pretty big," said Goumas, whose team improved to 15-13-1, as well as 7-6-0 within Hockey East, and had climbed from 22nd to 18th in the PairWise by the time they left Towse Rink.
"They're 14th, ranked above us in the PairWise. We're trying to push ourselves up in Hockey East, but as well in the PairWise, and any time you beat a team like them it definitely helps."
Taking on the nation's fourth-stingiest scoring defense without pivot men Grayson Downing (separated shoulder) and Kyle Smith (concussion), Umile broke up his loaded top line by sliding Nick Sorkin down to center the second trio in an effort to spread the offense a bit — but the shift didn't exactly have its desired effect early.
UNH didn't manage its first shot on net until almost seven and a half minutes had been played, and finished the first period with only two. Casey DeSmith kept the contest scoreless with nine of his 38 stops in the opening stanza, though toward the end the ice began to tilt in favor of Notre Dame (15-10-1, 4-7-1). And 2:21 into the second they seized on that advantage, when Mario Lucia tipped home Eric Johnson's shot from the point.
At that point the hosts were being outshot 12-3, though about a minute after going ahead the Irish were whistled for interference, and the Wildcats — who weren't playing particularly poorly but just couldn't get pucks to the net — used the opportunity as a spark.
In 95 seconds, they doubled their shot total from the opening 25 minutes, and with 25 ticks remaining on the man advantage Kevin Goumas fed Brett Pesce for a one-timer from the point that slithered through the leg pads of Steven Summerhays. With that, UNH was even. But its surge wasn't finished.
Including that power play, 13 of the next 19 shots on net were fired from New Hampshire sticks, and with 7:57 left in the middle frame that translated to a lead. With the Wildcats cycling in the offensive zone, Jeff Silengo outfought his defender for possession of the ice between the crease and the faceoff circle, so he was staked out in a perfect position when Eric Knodel flung the puck toward the front of the net from the left half-wall.
His strength established, Silengo finished the play, showing his skill by redirecting the rubber through Summerhays, and putting the 'Cats on top, 2-1.
"Just a matter of a few minutes and all of a sudden you're down 2-1," said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson.
UNH carried its advantage into the third, though the Wildcats didn't carry the momentum along with it, testing Summerhays only once over the first eight minutes as the Irish dominated the early portion of the period and repeatedly peppered DeSmith at the other end.
He made his best save of the night when he used his right pad to quickly close the open net on a Peter Schneider rebound bid with 5:25 to go, and for a moment it looked as though that save would save the game — especially when UNH went on the power play just 40 seconds later.
But that's when things turned. And turned again.
DeSmith suffered his lone real lapse of the night after Notre Dame cleared the zone on its first man-down shift, as the goalie seemed to catch Bryan Rust's innocuous wrister in his stomach — until the puck rolled out of his sweater and trickled over the goal line for a shorthanded equalizer.
That tied the game with 4:32 left in regulation, though the Wildcats still had a power play chance. And they didn't waste it. Just 15 ticks after Schneider scored, Pesce and Dalton Speelman worked the puck to Goumas at the right side of the net. Matt Willows was stationed on the opposite post, but Goumas didn't need him, the intended pass hitting the defender between them and the puck squirting through Summerhays' pads for a third time.
Just like that, Umile's rejiggered top trio had struck, and with 4:03 to go the Wildcats had their lead back. A couple minutes later, Silengo tacked on his second of the night into an empty net.
And the Wildcats kept themselves plenty alive going into today's 4 p.m. rematch.