DURHAM — Momentum had begun to build for the University of New Hampshire men's hockey team. By sweeping a big series against Notre Dame, by winning three of four, and by winning seven of 10, the Wildcats had played their way back into a good position on the national and league-wide landscapes.
But after Friday night, they're suddenly needing to ensure the pendulum doesn't start to swing too far in the wrong direction after a dud of a performance.
The University of Vermont came to the Whittemore Center, and spotted UNH an early lead. But the Catamounts used a quick burst to grab the lead early, then another to cement things late, and came away with a 5-2 victory that left UNH coach Dick Umile without an explanation for what was witnessed by a crowd of 5,452.
"I have no answers. We were awful," Umile said, his team now 16-14-1, 8-7-0 in Hockey East. "I take responsibility. I have no idea why we had no life, no zip. It was the worst I've seen us play in a long time. They just flat-out beat us."
The Wildcats opened the scoring just 6:22 in, when the cycle off a strong rush eventually created a two-on-one at the front of the net, and Matt Willows fed Kevin Goumas, who stuffed home his 13th tally of the season.
But the Catamounts were the aggressors early, owning an 11-3 edge in shots on goal at one point, and swarming DeSmith to strike twice in a span of 42 seconds near the middle of the frame. Brendan Bradley banged home a puck left uncovered in traffic for the first, then Brady Shaw took a rebound and wrapped around the net, throwing it off the right pad of the recovering netminder to give Vermont a 2-1 lead it carried to the initial intermission.
When play resumed, UNH was dealt a blow it not only felt Friday, but could potentially feel long-term, as winger Grayson Downing crashed into the boards after losing his balance on a hard rush to the cage. Play stopped as he writhed on the ice, then needed to be assisted off the ice, and the team confirmed Downing had reinjured the right shoulder that had kept him out of New Hampshire's four previous games, and precipitated his move from center to left wing as he worked his way back in on Friday.
He didn't return, and will be reevaluated today to determine his future availability.
Down Downing, the Wildcats didn't make things any easier on themselves by granting the Catamounts three power-play chances in the second stanza, the middle of which resulted in Connor Brickley sliding the rubber between Smith's pads after a sequence of passes slung the puck up the ice and put him in position to give his team a 3-1 lead.
That presented UNH with a challenge they'd yet to conquer this season – they entered 0-11-0 when trailing after two periods – and though they opened the third with 96 seconds left on a man-advantage, they never made up the two-goal gap.
The Wildcats got one back, Brett Pesce continuing his terrific stretch by ripping a far-side wrister past Mike Santaguida on the aforementioned power play (Willows and Nick Sorkin each notching his second of assist of the night), and from there UNH kept the pressure on. UVM was whistled for another penalty shortly thereafter, and eight of the first nine shots fired on net during the third period originated from New Hampshire sticks.
But any hope of a comeback was dashed in a flash. The Catamounts inserted the dagger by scoring twice in 18 seconds — Chris McCarthy and Mario Puskarich — and with 10:03 left to play, DeSmith was lifted in favor of Jeff Wyer after saving 24 of 29 attempts. It was just the third time this season that the Rochester native has allowed more than three scores, and the first time since Dec. 6.