ORONO, Maine — Before Thursday night’s contest with UMass-Amherst, Maine forward Niko Dimitrakos underscored the game’s importance.
“We have to approach this like a playoff game,” he said. “We have to have this game.”
With the teams tied for fifth place in Hockey East, two points could vault the winner all the way to third place. “This game is big,” Minuteman coach Don Cahoon said. “Especially with the break ahead of us.”
The action played out as advertised, as UMass overcame a pair of one-goal deficits in the first period to stay close. But in the end, the heroics came from an unlikely source. Maine defenseman Eric Turgeon, a late addition to the lineup, scored his first career goal late in the third period to lift the Black Bears to a 3-2 victory.
The loss continued the Minutemen’s steak of futility at the Alfond Arena, where they dropped to 0-15 lifetime.
The game winner came with a little over five minutes remaining and was set up by a Minuteman turnover in the neutral zone.
“In between the second and third periods [assistant coach Grant] Standbrook came into the locker room and told us to hold the red line,” Turgeon said. “They’d made that same mistake a couple of other times, but nothing came of it.”
This time, however, Turgeon capitalized. Corralling an errant clearing attempt, Turgeon broke into the UMass zone on a two-on-one break with freshman forward Mike Mantenuto.
“The defenseman [R.J. Gates] leaned toward Mike,” Turgeon said. “Their goalie has a big five-hole, so I shot it there.”
Turgeon’s wrister found a space between Minuteman goaltender Markus Helanen’s pads.
The festive mood was short-lived, however. Maine was forced to endure a UMass six-on-four skating advantage in the final minute of the game. The Minutemen took the play to the Black Bears in the final seconds, a sequence that was capped off a bizarre tipped shot that almost tied the game.
With the clock ticking off the final seconds, Minuteman forward Brad Nizwantowski unleashed a blast from the right point that was tipped by Maine defenseman Doug Janik.
“I was screened,” Black Bears goalie Matt Yeats said. “I didn’t have a clue where the puck was.”
The puck, knocked high into the air on the tip, floated over Yeats’ shoulder and clanged off the crossbar with three seconds remaining. The rebound was immediately cleared as the horn sounded.
“We finally got a break,” Maine coach Shawn Walsh said. “It might be a sign of things to come.”
The Black Bears came out flying early and broke on top at the 2:08 mark of the first period when sophomore Robert Liscak rapped home the rebound of a Martin Kariya shot with Maine on the power play.
UMass answered two minutes later with a power-play tally of its own. Forward Martin Miljko drove past Black Bear defenseman A.J. Begg in the left circle and flipped a backhander on Yeats, who made the stop but left a rebound that deflected of Janik’s skate and past him for the tying score.
Matthias Trattnig notched his team-leading eighth goal of the season at 8:31 to put the Black Bears back on top. Trattnig took a feed from Tom Reimann along the right-wing boards and found some room into the circle.
“I had a guy in front of me,” Trattnig said. “But I had the far side open and shot for that.”
Trattnigs wrister seemed to have eyes, floating through traffic and beating Helanen high to the blocker side.
The Minutemen wouldn’t go away. Mike Warner collected the rebound of a Justin Shaw slap shot behind the Maine net and his wraparound beat Yeats to pull the Minutemen even at 15:55 of the first.
A solid effort was little solace for Cahoon.
“I suppose it’s good that we’re improving,” Cahoon said. “It’s good to know we can come into a place like this and compete. But at the end of the day, we leave with nothing.”
In the other locker room, relief was mixed with expectation.
“With that puck hitting the post we become a much better hockey team,” Walsh said. “We get Donny Richardson [transfer, forced to sit first semester], Peter Metcalf [sprained MCL] and Brendan Donovan [lacerated kidney] back in the lineup after Christmas.”
Walsh explained he was forced to go with a limited roster down the stretch due to injuries.
“Gary Shaneberger went out with a concussion and Begg went down with a groin injury,” Walsh said. “I had to put [freshman forward Francis] Nault on the fourth line as a forward. That line was on the ice when Turgeon scored.”
Walsh was proud of Turgeon’s effort.
“He’s a guy that probably shouldn’t have played,” Walsh said, noting Turgeon’s injured shoulder sidelined him for the previous four games. “He wouldn’t have played if we didn’t have so many guys out, but he stepped up.”