ESTERO, Fla. — They aren’t called the hardest working team in college hockey for nothing.
In their first trip to TECO Arena and the Everblades College Classic, the Northern Michigan Wildcats engineered a 5-4 come-from-behind win over the Maine Black Bears, practically willing themselves a victory with perseverance and sheer tenacity.
With Northern Michigan trailing by two goals late in the first, Mike Stutzel cut the Black Bear lead in half.
When Maine again went up by two in the second, NMU responded less than two minutes later when Dave Bonk netted his second goal of the season.
And trailing 3-2 at the start of the third — and being outshot 32-15 — Northern tied the game 34 seconds in, then scored a go-ahead goal 1:58 later.
When Maine knotted the game yet again 41 seconds later, the Wildcats responded by kicking their game up a notch. That resulted in an exciting end-to-end final 15 minutes, including Bryce Cockburn’s game-winning goal that was nearly a carbon copy of Saturday’s overtime winner.
“When we got that third one to tie it up, it was a big emotional jump for us,” said NMU netminder Craig Kowalski, who posted 37 saves in the game and 92 on the weekend. “When we got that fourth one, I thought there was no stopping us. Then they battled back and scored that fourth one.”
Going on to win, said Kowalski, showed the “grit” of the Northern team.
NMU head coach Rick Comley said that the win was even more significant after the Wildcats had to battle into a second overtime to defeat Cornell Saturday.
“It was a very tough game physically last night,” said Comley. “We played a team [Cornell] that was big and tough and strong. When I watched Maine play Ohio State, even though Ohio State’s missing two of the best players in the country, I didn’t know [what to expect]. Maine skates so well, passes so well, with a quick transition game. I wasn’t so sure we could deal with that.
“We had to make several adjustments in the game. We had to have very good goaltending, and we got better as the game went on. You would have thought that we would have been tired in the third, but I thought we were stronger in the third, and they seemed to get tired. It speaks volumes for our guys.”
Maine interim head coach Tim Whitehead credited the Wildcats with a well-earned win, and said there was no shame in the loss.
“Our guys played well,” said Whitehead. “I’m not going to make up things that we need to do and don’t do. I’m proud of how we competed this week and I thought our discipline was excellent. We were very creative offensively and our special teams were solid. There are a lot of positives, but at the same time we’re disappointed because we came down here with a purpose, to win the tournament. We felt that we could do that, but we were one goal short.”
Maine took the 1-0 lead at 11:52 in the first on Tom Reimann’s slapshot from just outside the crease, and Colin Shields made it 2-0 at 17:42, moments after Kowalski denied him at point-blank range.
But Mike Stutzel made it 2-1 at 18:02 when he picked up Cockburn’s rebound and sent it in past Matt Yeats.
“Last night we had a situation where we were up two-nothing, and Richardson got our third goal [against OSU],” said Whitehead. “What a difference a three-goal lead can make. They [NMU] got that first goal and went into the locker room thinking, well, we’re right there.”
Robert Liscak gave Maine another two-goal lead at 11:43 in the second on the Black Bear power play, stuffing the puck in low between Kowalski’s left skate and the pipe, but Bonk answered at 13:02 with a goal that seemed to flutter past Yeats in slow motion.
The second period ended with a 3-2 Maine lead.
Moments into the third period, Chris Gobert stole the puck in the Wildcat end and passed up long to Alan Swanson, who flew in on the left wing and one-timed it past Yeats from the left circle at :34 to tie the game.
Northern took its first lead of the game on Stutzel’s second goal of the night at 2:32 in the third, with Stutzel picking up his own rebound on a blast from the left of the Maine net.
Todd Jackson tied the game — again — at 3:13, going coast-to-coast and moving from left to right in front of the Northern crease, tucking the puck in low on Kowalski near the right pipe.
But just as they did Saturday night, Chad Theuer and Bryce Cockburn connected to give the Wildcats the win. Theuer dug the puck out of the right corner and fed Cockburn in front. Cockburn beat Yeats five-hole at 10:25 for the game-winner.
“Chad just gave me another great pass,” said Cockburn. “It was right on the tape, as usual.”
“That happened all weekend to us,” said Comley. “We kept getting goals when we needed them, and that’s what you have to do.”
Whitehead said that Northern’s patience was a real factor.
“We’ve all been in games like this on both sides. We seemed to be carrying the play and looked like, hey, this might turn into an easy one — but it didn’t because of Northern,” he said. “They made sure it didn’t. They started chipping away and chipping away and before you knew it, they had the momentum and all of a sudden we were scrambling just to tie the game. We did, and they got another one.”
Comley acknowledged that on paper, Maine had the real advantage. “I think today the kids had to battle and dig down and find it, because if you took pure speed and puck movement, they’re better than we are. But our guys made the adjustments necessary and battled.”
Maine (9-6-3) meets Hockey East foe Providence Jan. 4 and hosts a nonconference game with Dartmouth Jan. 6, while Northern Michigan (11-6-1) hosts CCHA opponent Nebraska-Omaha for two Jan. 4-5.