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College Hockey: Umile tribute weekend starts with a Vermont win

Special to the Union Leader

February 09. 2018 11:43PM
Alex Richards, a trombone player for the UNH pep band, wears a coach Dick Umile tribute shirt at Friday night's game at the Whittemore Center. It's Dick Umile Weekend, celebrating the longtime coach who is retiring after this season. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

DURHAM — The kickoff to “Coach Umile Weekend” did not go as planned for the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team.

The Wildcats entered Friday night’s affair tied with weekend opponent Vermont in eighth place in the Hockey East (5-9-4, 14 points), but the Catamounts put a damper on the festivities, edging the hosts 2-1 at the Whittemore Center to gain a temporary upper hand in the jockeying for playoff position.

“We had the opportunity to get home ice,” said UNH head coach Dick Umile, who is retiring at the end of the season after 28 years at the helm. “They win, now it’s imperative to win tomorrow to stay even with them.”

Vermont got the scoring going on the game’s first power play, working a pinpoint tic-tac-toe passing clinic, concluding when Alex Esposito one-timed a shot from the slot at the 5:21 mark of the first period.

The Catamounts made it a two-goal game in the second period on some quick, up-ice pressure that saw Esposito charge into the zone and slip a pass across the crease where Matt O’Donnell deposited the puck in the open right side with 6:33 left in the period.

Vermont's Matt O'Donnell scores on UNH's goalie Danny Tirone in the second period at UNH in Durham on Friday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

Before the second intermission, the Wildcats were able to cut the lead in half when Michael McNicholas pushed a pass through the neutral zone up to Ara Nazarian, who swooped in to collect at the blue line before skating in and squeezing a backhand through the five-hole of Catamounts goalie Stefanos Lekkas with less than two minutes remaining in the period.

“(Shane Eiserman) gave a chip pass up to McNicholas and he gave a chip pass up to me,” Nazarian said. “I just went in on a breakaway and slid it back into his five hole. There was a guy on my back, so it was kind of one of the only plays I had, and it went in.”

But it was Lekkas who proved the difference maker, ensuring that none of the other 26 shots by the Wildcats got past him, including 12 in the first.

“He was great, especially early on their power play,” Vermont head coach Kevin Sneddon said of his goalie. “We didn’t cover the back door and he made a couple of post-to-post saves that at the start of the game could have been significantly different.”

“We had chances to score. We didn’t put it behind him,” Umile said. “We’ve been struggling scoring.”

The first of two nights to honor the longtime Wildcats coach saw his current players wearing the number 15 jersey he sported during his playing days at UNH for their pregame warmups. Similar replica T-shirts were presented to the first 2,000 fans in attendance. Umile’s hometown Melrose, Mass., Police Department Honor Guard presented the colors prior to the national anthem, and many former teammates and players from his time at UNH were on hand to honor his time in Durham.

The two teams will conclude their season series tonight at 7 p.m.

“They’re two points ahead of us now,” Nazarian concluded. “Obviously, every game is a big game, but tomorrow will be a key game for us to get back even with them, going into the final Hockey East games.”

UNH's Ara Nazarian, center, celebrates his second period goal with Michael McNicholas, left, and Brendan van Riemsdyk against Vermont at UNH in Durham on Friday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

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