ST. PAUL, Minn. — When you walk into one of hockey’s most beautiful buildings — the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul — one of the first things you notice is one of the largest replay screens ever.
In Thursday’s first NCAA semifinal, that sight was fitting.
With Maine facing New Hampshire and a trip to the title tilt for the winner, fans for both schools couldn’t help but conjure up memories of a similar faceoff three years ago. The stakes were a bit different then: the winner would be the national champion, and Maine went to to capture its second title in dramatic fashion, a 3-2 overtime victory.
— Niko Dimitrakos
On Thursday, though, it was dj vu of sorts for the seniors of both clubs — the only players to be on the roster for both games. A look at the similarities, though, is a bit frightening:
- Revenge was a factor in both games. In 1999, UNH beat Maine twice in the final two games of the regular season to capture its first Hockey East regular-season title. This year, the Wildcats added their only other piece of hardware by beating the Black Bears three weeks ago to win the Hockey East tournament.
- Both years Maine had an outside motivator: death. Late in the 1999 season, team equipment manager Rich Britt was killed while working on his truck when it crushed him. It was said back then that the Black Bears, that year, had planned to present a championship ring during the first round of the Hockey East playoffs, but the UNH sweep in the final series killed those thoughts. This year, as everyone knows, Maine lost of head coach Shawn Walsh to cancer just weeks before the season started.
Beyond those surface similarities, others go much further.
- The name of Kariya is pretty important to both the 1999 and 2002 Maine clubs. If Maine wins Saturday, three different Kariyas would capture titles for the Black Bears. Eldest brother Paul began the magic in 1992, with Steve following up in 1999. And now the youngest, Martin, will have his shot at the title.
- Both seasons, Maine took the long road to the championship game. Both years found the Black Bears as number-three seeds in the tourney, and therefore without a first-round bye. ’99 saw the Bears knock off number-six Ohio State and number-two Clarkson to get to the Frozen Four. They wouldn’t meet the East’s number one seed — New Hampshire — until the title game because of the bracketing back then. This year, the meeting with New Hampshire was one game earlier.
- And though it’s a stretch, the location was similar for both games. In the last four years, two championships have been played outside of the East region: Anaheim in 1999 (a true Western city), and St. Paul this season (though in the middle of the country, it’s what college hockey considers west).
All of this was something easy for players like Maine captain Peter Metcalf, who scored twice on Thursday to help Maine’s cause, to recognize the similarities.
“This was just like 1999,” said Metcalf. “We had the moment [in the game]. We got UNH worried.
“The team just had great confidence and we showed it. [Tonight] coming in the second period we said that when we were coming into the third period, we were going to be ahead.”
Fellow senior Niko Dimitrakos, who scored a goal back in the 1999 meeting but was held off the board on Thursday, recognized that right now his club is fighting for what the Black Bears consider the preferred championship.
“There’s something we’ve always talked about in Maine — something that coach Walsh always stressed — the Hockey East championship is nice to win, and it’s nice to be the regular-season champion, but nobody remembers those things,” said Dimitrakos. “Everybody remembers the national champion. We’ve put ourselves in position now to win one game and win that title.
“[The two teams] are pretty similar. They had five seniors and we have four seniors. We definitely had a better record in 1999 (31-6-4 versus a current mark of 26-10-7). But we had a lot of adversity this year that kind of stopped us from having a better record.
Comparisons all aside, the quest for the ultimate similarity — the national championship — is now one step away.
“[Our record] doesn’t really matter right now,” said Dimitrakos. “We’re playing one game, and that’s what it’s going to come down to.
“It’s right in front of us.”