Commentary

UNH clinches Hockey East title

Wildcats come alive in third period vs. BC to swing the momentum

Updated: March 6, 2010, 1:33 AM ET
By Brian MacPherson | Special to ESPNBoston.com

DURHAM, N.H. -- John Henrion provided the spark. Peter LeBlanc provided the hustle. Blake Kessel provided the slapshot.

After almost a complete no-show through the first two periods, New Hampshire came alive just in time to earn the tie that clinched the Wildcats their third Hockey East regular-season title in four seasons. Kessel rang a bullet off the bottom of the crossbar behind Boston College goaltender Parker Milner to cap a wild third-period rally and earn a 3-3 tie that felt, to UNH, as good as a win.

BC needed to win on Friday to give itself a chance to leapfrog the Wildcats in the standings with another win on Saturday. Instead, a goal off the stick of Henrion flipped the momentum of the game early in the third period, and the tenacious work of LeBlanc down low drew the penalty that set up the strike by Kessel.

"It was just keeping things simple," said Kessel, who declared himself good to go despite taking a shot off the ankle in the closing seconds of the third period. "We tried to complicate things a little too much in the second period, tried to make a few too many plays at the blue line. We kept it simple and worked hard. Everyone came out to play in the third period."

(The good health of Kessel is a blessing considering the Wildcats learned Friday they'll be without standout defenseman Brett Kostolansky for the rest of the season with a fractured kneecap.)

[+] EnlargeBobby Butler
AP Photo/Josh GibneyUNH senior captain Bobby Butler carries the Hockey East regular-season championship trophy after the Wildcats tied Boston College 3-3 Friday.

If New Hampshire could somehow find a way to skip right to the third period, the Wildcats would be unstoppable. Dick Umile's team has trailed after two periods in each of its last four games and hasn't led going into the third period since January. Northeastern coach Greg Cronin last week even lamented that he'd been thrilled with all but 10 or 15 minutes of the home-and-home series his team had played against UNH, and BC coach Jerry York echoed the sentiment on Friday.

"I really liked how we played for those 55 minutes," York said. "Those 10 minutes, roughly 10 minutes, they took over the game for those 10 minutes."

The third period just happens to be when the Wildcats turn on the jets -- and it's tended to be LeBlanc leading the charge.

When Umile decided to put Bobby Butler, Phil DeSimone and Paul Thompson together on the Wildcats' first line, he did so at the expense of LeBlanc, who had started 10 of the first 11 games of the regular season.

Even from the second line, though, LeBlanc has been one of the Wildcats' steadiest players all season. His total of 14 goals matches that of last season, and his total of 17 assists is one better than last season. He didn't record either a goal or an assist on Friday, but he might have been the best player on the ice in the third period.

"He's done that all year," Kessel said. "He's been a little bit under the radar with Bob having an unreal year, but Peter's had over 30 points again. He's still doing it. He's moving his feet. He knows we're going to need guys like him come playoff time."

When the two teams lined up for the game's final faceoff, a draw in the Wildcats' zone with 33.5 seconds on the clock, it was LeBlanc in the circle between Butler and Thompson. LeBlanc was the only UNH player on Friday with a winning record on faceoffs (12-6) -- and he didn't do too badly once the puck was dropped either.

His first big play came after UNH's Greg Burke had drawn a tripping penalty to give BC its first power play. Barely 30 seconds later, before the Eagles could do anything productive with their man advantage, LeBlanc split three defenders in the blue line and drew a slashing penalty on BC's Steven Whitney.

Almost 10 minutes later, by which time UNH had scored again and seized control of the game, LeBlanc won control of the puck in the corner and was tripped up by Joe Whitney, Steven's brother, to give the Wildcats their only full-length power play of the game.

"When you're working a team down low and cycling, you force them to either skate with you or [take] a penalty," LeBlanc said. "That's basically what we did, try and create a little cycle, and, sure enough, it caused a couple of penalties."

"He's just a fierce competitor," Umile said. "He wants to win. He almost got through there a couple of times -- and he was in one time, when he got the penalty."

Kessel tied the game 30 seconds later, ripping an open slapshot off the bottom of the crossbar and into the back of the net.

York said he'd thought earlier this week about whether or not to pull his goaltender in an extra session in a situation in which his team needed a win to keep its Hockey East title hopes alive. As it turned out, his Eagles' hopes for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament won out over their hopes for a regular-season title.

"The trump card is the national tournament," York said. "I'd never put that in jeopardy to win a conference championship. Our goal, of course, is to win a conference championship, but the bigger goal, the more important goal, is the national championship."

Tournament seeds will be on the minds of the Wildcats, too, in the rematch on Saturday at Conte Forum. The regular season might be wrapped up, but UNH remains in no-man's land between a No. 2 seed and a No. 3 seed in the tournament field. A win on Saturday against Boston College would cap off just the type of weekend that would get the attention of the PairWise calculators.

"We're definitely not done yet," DeSimone said. "It's just kind of starting."

At some point, though, New Hampshire will have to find a way to play its first and second periods the way it played the third period on Friday.

"We had a great third period," Butler said. "All the guys did good out there. It was a big win -- a big tie, I mean."

Same thing, as it turns out.

Brian MacPherson is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. His email address is brianrmacpherson@gmail.com.

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