Friday night’s matchup between Hockey East titans Boston College and New Hampshire had been circled on the calendar for weeks, given each team’s success in the first half of the season.
It was the first meeting of the season between the No. 3 Eagles and No. 4 Wildcats, who were the top two teams in the league going into the weekend.
In the end, the advantage went to BC, which earned a 5-2 victory in front of 7,884 at Conte Forum. The Eagles improved their home record to 8-0-1 and 16-0-2 in their last 18 games.
BC (13-3-2, 10-2-1) welcomed back sophomore left wing Johnny Gaudreau, who was fresh off his gold medal-winning performance for Team USA in the World Junior Tournament in Russia. BC certainly missed his offense as the Eagles went 1-1-1 in the contests he missed, including their only two-game winless streak of the season.
The Eagles were without their coach, however, because Jerry York was recovering at home from a medical procedure to repair a detached retina. Associate head coaches Mike Cavanaugh and Greg Brown took over for the weekend.
“I thought we competed pretty hard tonight,’’ said Cavanaugh, who said York was doing well. “It was two teams going up and down the ice.’’
BC took a 2-1 lead into the first intermission. Sophomore center Jay Camper put the Wildcats on the board first at 8:54. He took a centering pass from sophomore right wing Matt Willows and rapped it past senior goalie Parker Milner (31 saves) from just outside the left post.
At 2:59, UNH (13-4-2, 8-3-1) had another great chance when junior left wing Dalton Speelman’s shot rattled off the left post.
BC responded with a pair in the second half of the period. Junior pivot Bill Arnold relayed the puck to junior left wing Kevin Hayes, who was charging down the slot, and Hayes beat sophomore netminder Casey DeSmith (12 saves) with a high shot under the crossbar at 13:29.
Gaudreau made his presence felt at 17:42, setting up BC’s second goal. Gaudreau, positioned in the right circle, dished the puck to senior center Pat Mullane in the slot, and Mullane beat DeSmith for his ninth goal of the season, which gave the Eagles the 2-1 lead.
Gaudreau had a chance to score in the final seconds of the period on a shot from the left circle, but DeSmith made the save.
BC boosted the lead to two goals at 5:01 of the pivotal second period when Gaudreau tallied his 12th of the season. Sophomore right wing Destry Straight delivered a long lead pass to Gaudreau, who was racing up the right side. Gaudreau switched to his backhand and beat DeSmith from the inside edge of the right circle.
Gaudreau picked up his third point of the game and 26th of the season at 15:43. Gaudreau, skating through the right circle, rifled a pass to Mullane, who was coming in through the backdoor on the left. Gaudreau’s pass was right on the money and Mullane tapped it home for his second goal of the game.
Gaudreau lit up the World Junior Tournament and was the top goal scorer with seven, all in the last four games. He was tied for fifth in points in the tournament with 9.
Mullane said it was nice to have him back.
“He makes some special plays,’’ said Mullane. “He sees the ice better than just about anyone I’ve ever played with.’’
BC added its fifth goal with 14.7 seconds remaining in the second period. This time it was Hayes setting up Arnold. It was Arnold’s ninth of the season, and UNH faced a massive deficit going into the final period.
Coach Dick Umile inserted junior goaltender Jeff Wyer, making his second appearance of the season.
UNH picked up its second goal, at the 37-second mark of the third, thanks to junior left wing Kevin Goumas.
The venue shifts to the Whittemore Center for Saturday night’s rematch, and UNH will try to end BC’s win streak over the Wildcats at six games.
For Umile, it was a missed opportunity.
“Guys were ready to go, we stood around and watched them execute three-on-twos without picking people up in the defensive zone,’’ he said. “We just gave them great scoring opportunities and they finished them. I was disappointed in our defensive play.’’ Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.