BOSTON -- The UNH Wildcats have only one option to guarantee a spot in the NCAA tournament, and that's to win the Hockey East title. Friday, the fourth-seeded Wildcats kept that dream alive, knocking the third-seeded Providence Friars out in the league semifinals, 3-1, at TD Garden in Boston.
"It's an honor to play here," said New Hampshire junior Matt Willows. "It's a great league, and every year it's just a battle to get here. To get the win tonight, and the opportunity to win tomorrow night, is great. We look forward to tomorrow night."
Coaches like to say that good teams need their best players to step up on the big stage of the playoffs. UNH senior Kevin Goumas did just that on Friday, as the Hockey East second-team all-star led the Wildcats (22-17-1) with a pair of goals to send the Friars (21-10-6) packing.
"He's determined not to have his season end," UNH coach Dick Umile said of Goumas. "He's played well for us all season. He's had a terrific year. It's great to see the puck go in for him."
Asked afterward if he thought about the possibility of each game being his last, Goumas said: "That's been on my mind for the last week or so. The way I've been playing, I'm just going out there and making sure it's not my last game.
"I want to take care of business here at Hockey East first, but I want one more chance to get to the NCAA tournament and a national championship," he said.
Waiting for the Wildcats is the 2nd-seeded UMass Lowell River Hawks, the defending Hockey East champs, who dispatched the Notre Dame Fighting Irish earlier on Friday afternoon, 4-0.
"The first time's hard, but the second time is even harder," said UML's Derek Arnold, when asked how tough it is to get to the Hockey East final. "We put ourselves in the position to go after another championship, and we're going to prepare properly for that tonight and tomorrow, and go for that."
In the nightcap, goals were hard to come by early, as both teams played a tight-checking style and both netminders -- PC's Jon Gillies (28 saves) and UNH's Casey DeSmith (25 saves) -- were in playoff form.
New Hampshire's leading scorer gave the Wildcats a 1-0 lead at 7:05 of the second period on a spectacular solo rush. Picking up the puck from a scrum in the high slot, UNH's Goumas went into overdrive as he motored down the right side, blew past PC's Anthony Florentino, curled behind the net and tucked the puck into the net before Gillies could recover for an unassisted short-handed tally.
"I thought the game changed at that point," said PC coach Nate Leaman. "I thought from that point on, [UNH] really won all the battles. And I thought we played soft from that point on, and just didn't execute that well."
The Wildcats went up 2-0 at 13:31, on a goal that had the Garden crowd experiencing a sense of déjà vu. In a scoring play eerily similar to Lowell's first strike in the opening semifinal, Wildcat Justin Agosta flicked a shot from the right point that caromed off PC defender Kevin Hart as he chased UNH's Maxim Gaudreault, and the puck skidded behind Gillies.
The backbreaker, though, came with just a second remaining in the middle stanza, and again Goumas was in the middle of the action. With the clock ticking down, Goumas had the puck locked and loaded on the right side, but instead of shooting, the senior dished it across the slot to linemate Nick Sorkin. PC's Drew Brown made a great defensive play to break up Sorkin's bid, but Goumas stayed with the play, picking up the puck behind the net and jamming it past Gillies just before the buzzer sounded for a 3-0 Wildcats lead. It was Goumas' fifth goal in his past two UNH games.
Less than three minutes into the third, UNH threatened to put the game on ice when Agosta cruised in from the right point and ripped a shot that beat Gillies, but the puck clanged off iron and ricocheted away.
Instead, it was the Friars who struck next, and another outstanding play by Brown. Fighting for the puck behind the UNH net with a Wildcat defender, Brown got upended but still managed to swat the puck to linemate Kevin Rooney. The sophomore stepped out from behind the goal line and roofed a shot over DeSmith's glove to cut the Wildcat lead to 3-1 at 3:22.
Rooney's goal seemed to wake up the Friars, who outshot the Wildcats by a 2-to-1 margin (12 shots to 5) in the final period. But despite several flurries deep in the UNH zone, the Friars couldn't get another puck past DeSmith.
"We were just staying on the perimeter too much," said Rooney. "I think if we got to the inside a little more, we could have got more pucks on DeSmith, created some more traffic and rebounds. We just didn't get to the dirty areas."
Providence, currently tied for ninth in the national Pairwise Rankings, is all but assured a spot in the NCAA tournament field of 16. New Hampshire, tied for 16th, has to win Saturday to make certain it gets an invitation.
"Right now, it's about the moment," said Umile. "This team is feeling good about itself. We're just looking forward to coming out here and competing and giving it our best shot. We had a solid game. We played as well as we could play. We have to do that again tomorrow against Lowell.
"We're going to need to win to get into the NCAA tournament," he said. "And that's our goal, winning a national championship."