The Boston University men’s hockey team came into the Whittemore Center on Friday night and got owned – losing 6-4 in its first Hockey East competition of the season – by a University of New Hampshire squad that simply wanted it more.
“Not a very good night. I think probably the biggest takeaway for me is I’m not doing a good enough job coaching because I don’t have our guys ready,” BU head coach Jay PandoIfo said postgame. “I don’t have our guys playing the right way. So I’ll take responsibility, it’s not good enough.”
The Wildcats (1-0-0) straight up out-played the Terriers (1-1-0, 0-1-0 Hockey East) for 60 minutes. Their hustle, suffocating forecheck and tight neutral zone play put BU on its heels early and swung the momentum in favor of the home team in front of a booming UNH student section.
UNH didn’t let the Terriers settle into the game, attacking from the get-go and leaning on its physicality to break a usually strong BU structure. While senior forward Luke Tuch gave BU an early lead, tipping in a Tom Willander point shot at 2:53 of the first period, the Wildcats continuously found answers in what turned out to be a cumulative six-goal opening frame.
“It started again in the first period with our breakouts, we just weren’t executing,” Pandolfo said. “We have a plan on our breakouts and for whatever reason, we’re not sticking to that plan and it’s veteran guys that know what we’re supposed to do.”
Goals from sophomore forward Cy LeClerc and junior forward Liam Devlin pulled the Wildcats ahead 2-1 with just under 10 minutes left in the first. Talent then took over for the Terriers as freshman forward Macklin Celebrini tied it up 2-2 at 14:46 off a pretty 2-on-0 rush up ice with sophomore forward Jeremy Wilmer.
Willander, the freshman defenseman, soon regained the lead in his NCAA debut, tacking on a second point with his own goal at 16:40. Fellow Vancouver Canucks prospect Aiden Celebrini found Willander by the right circle who snapped the puck home for the 3-2 advantage – which only lasted for 27 seconds before senior defenseman Luke Reid knotted things at 3-3 from the slot.
Pandolfo had high praises for both Willander and A. Celebrini, calling the latter “arguably our best player tonight” and saying Willander was “excellent” in his debut.
Overall, though, it was a sloppy, scattered, uninspired period of hockey for a Terrier team who got UNH’s absolute best, and things didn’t change much in the second.
“I give them [UNH] a lot of credit, they played a great game. They played their structure very well. They played what they thought could help them win the game and it paid off for them,” Pandolfo said.
The Wildcats tenaciously hunted pucks down in all three zones, forcing BU to turn it over nearly every shift. UNH didn’t let up on its edge either, getting under the Terriers’ skin after the whistle and pushing them off o-zone possessions.
A misplay down low by junior defenseman Ty Gallagher led to UNH’s fourth goal of the night from sophomore forward Morgan Winters at 1:43 of the second. BU got on the power play at 5:43 after Willander drew a tripping penalty, but the Wildcats were the only team to cash in, netting a shorthanded goal from Winters – his second – on junior goaltender Mathieu Caron who was getting battle tested.
The netminder made a total 29 saves on 35 shots, and while some were shaky lapses, Caron came up big at other times. Pandolfo said he thought about pulling Caron, but didn’t want to put it on the goalie – “figured I’d leave him in there,” he said.
Down 5-3 on the road against a conference opponent, the Terriers got a stark reminder that preseason polls mean nothing if you can’t match the hype on the ice. Celebrini pulled his squad within one at 13:52 – the phenom first-year’s second goal of the game and third of the season – to make it 5-4 heading into the third period, a small gap for the number of high-danger chances UNH got off before the buzzer.
Sophomore forward Kristaps Skrastins widened the Wildcats’ lead to 6-4 to open the third period, knocking in a greasy rebound with solid net-front positioning at 3:04. By the 15 minute mark, UNH was outshooting the Terriers 27-16 and stayed consistent with the speed game it put forth from puck drop.
The Wildcats held onto their 6-4 advantage to secure their first win against BU in the last 16 meetings between the two teams. The No. 1 Boston University crashed down to the reality of Hockey East competition and the tough parity the league provides on a nightly basis.
“The number one ranking is preseason – to me, it doesn’t mean a lot – and now, I mean, that’s not going to be it next week,” Pandolfo said. “Hopefully our guys, hey we lost now, kind of reset and get back to what makes us a successful team”
The Terriers will now face the U.S. Under-18 Team for an exhibition game at Agganis Arena Saturday night, but beyond then, they’ve got a whole lot to figure out – primarily, learning how to play as one cohesive team and not rely on individual talent.
“Right now, the way we’re playing, it’s gonna be a long year if we continue to play like this,” Pandolfo said. “We’ve got to start getting some things straightened out and it can start tomorrow, just playing the game the right way. It doesn’t matter if it’s exhibition or not.”