Holding the No. 11/12 University of New Hampshire to just one goal in 120 minutes of play this weekend, the No. 2 Boston University men’s hockey team took both games of a home-and-home series with the Wildcats, winning 5-0 Friday at Agganis Arena before triumphing in a 3-1 decision at the Whittemore Center on Saturday night.
Freshman forward Chris Connolly was credited with the game-winning goal on Saturday, while senior forward Chris Higgins followed his three-assist game Friday night with an open-net goal to ice the win.
At this time last year, BU (18-5-1, 11-5-1 Hockey East) had just eight wins to its name.
Reeling from a pair of losses to UNH (11-8-4, 7-6-3) to close out the month of January, the 2007-08 Terriers had little in the way of team chemistry, eventually bowing out of national contention.
With sophomore forward Colin Wilson and senior co-captain Matt Gilroy announcing their decisions to return this offseason, the Terriers have re-established themselves as one of the nation’s top teams.
‘You learn to forget,’ senior forward Brandon Yip said with regard to this year’s turnaround. ‘For us, it starts in practice. During the week, we try to battle and compete. We just need to keep working hard.’
Anchored by freshman goalie Kieran Millan, whose streak of just under 316 minutes without allowing an even-strength goal was snapped in the third period by UNH sophomore forward Mike Sislo, the Terriers were outshot by the Wildcats 52-48 over the two-game span.
‘Nobody has done to us what [UNH] did to us tonight as far as keeping our shots down,’ BU coach Jack Parker said Saturday. ‘We have only been outshot one time this year, and we didn’t just get outshot, we got outshot 2-to-1. They deserved a better fate.
‘I thought [Millan] played absolutely fabulous. When they got great looks, [he] once again came up big.’
Attributing the sweep to two key denominators, Parker cited Millan’s goaltending and the team’s penalty-kill conversions as the two main facets of this weekend’s wins.
Killing off six man-down situations Saturday night, the Terriers prevented UNH from capitalizing on all 14 of its power-play chances this weekend.
Anchored by senior co-captains John McCarthy and Gilroy, the Terriers’ penalty kill has grown over the season to embody McCarthy’s grinder mentality.
‘The key for us is blocking shots and doing the little things,’ junior forward Luke Popko said. ‘That’s what the penalty kill is all about ‘-‘- being able to clear the puck and get it out from in front of the net. [Millan] has been huge. It’s a lot easier killing penalties when you have someone like him behind you.’
Millan, who is 14-1-1 on the year, nabbed the starting role in Parker’s system despite beginning the season in a two-man rotation with fellow freshman backstop Grant Rollheiser.
The Terriers jumped ahead first for the second night in a row, as sophomore defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk pinched in off the blue line to keep the puck in the offensive zone.
On the man-up after UNH’s Blake Kessel was whistled for holding Connolly against the half-wall, McCarthy scraped the puck off the end boards before Shattenkirk collected it in the slot.
With open ice to set his feet, Shattenkirk sniped a shot through Wildcat goalie Brian Foster’s five-hole.
‘The first period was really tentative for us,’ Parker said. ‘I thought we were in a really bad frame of mind, and yet we end up winning the period, 1-0.’
Caught on their heels for the majority of the second period, the Terriers collected their momentum heading into the intermission.
While the Terriers allowed UNH to pepper Millan with 11 shots in the third period, they were able to establish a dominant rhythm coming out of the dressing room.’ ‘
‘I thought the last six or seven minutes of the second period was the best we played in terms of turning around, getting some offense,’ Parker said. ‘In the third period, we played exactly the way we wanted to play. It was a smart period.’
The Wildcats threatened BU’s three-game winning streak at the 13-minute mark of the third on Sislo’s tally, but freshman forward Vinny Saponari put the Terriers back on top for good when he found Connolly open on Foster’s blocker side.
Coming just 23 seconds after Sislo’s goal, Connolly’s tip-in buried the Wildcats for BU’s 18th win of the year.
‘[It was] an unbelievable answer,’ Parker said. ‘They score, and we come back to score right away. Saponari did a lot of great work below the goal line and getting the puck to the goal line.’
Friday night, BU got on the board 38 seconds in on a goal by Wilson.
The assist was credited to Higgins, who, in his first two games back after suffering a mild concussion against Merrimack College a week ago, made the most of his return.
Higgins, who received six stitches in his forehead following a hit from behind by Merrimack sophomore Fraser Allan on Jan. 16, was cleared to play prior to the game.
‘He didn’t practice the entire week,’ Parker said Friday. ‘He took a light skate on Wednesday. He had taken his concussion test, and everything was fine there, so there was a question whether or not he was going to play. But he had no problems [Friday morning], so there was no look that he still had concussion problems. I thought he played great.’
Rejoining Wilson and senior Jason Lawrence on Parker’s first line, Higgins connected with Wilson for a pair of tallies and Lawrence for another.’
The trio, which now holds three of the top five spots in scoring for the Terriers this season, has solidified itself as one of the top lines in the nation.
‘Everything is clicking right now,’ Lawrence, who ended the night with a goal and two assists, said Friday. ‘We’ve been playing together since the first day of practice. We got to know each other well as players.’
Now 11-1-1 in their last 13 games, the Terriers find themselves primed to best last year’s stretch run.