ORONO, Maine — Kirk Gibson. Ronnie Lott. Michael Ayers.
What do these three have in common? They all played fantastic games with tremendous pain.
After having a tendon completely torn in his left wrist by the skate blade of teammate Mick Mounsey on Friday night, New Hampshire goalie Michael Ayers returned to the ice wearing a brace on the wrist and backstopped a 2-2 tie with Maine at Alfond Arena Saturday night. The Wildcats are now 19-5-3, 11-3-3 in Hockey East, while the Black Bears are 16-7-5, 10-3-3.
He made 33 saves, including some beauties down the stretch, running his record to 10-2-1 on the year.
“I had to ride the doctor for about 20 minutes last night,” Ayers said. He was rushed to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor after being cut midway through the second period. He was told by a doctor at the hospital that the injury would require surgery, keeping him out for 4-6 to weeks.
“I told him I really wanted to play in tonight’s game, and I asked him if there was any way I could delay the surgery, and he said that was possible,” Ayers said. “He told me that I couldn’t do any more damage [to the wrist], so I could try and play.”
He put a brace on the wrist, and tested the injury during warmups. He felt good enough to play, and UNH coach Dick Umile was glad he did.
“I’m so proud of him,” Umile said. “It was obviously very painful for him out there, but he did a good job. His effort was incredible.”
“It bothered me a lot,” Ayers said. “Covering up the puck was really hard. And the one shot at the end, the cannon. It hurt a lot to catch that.”
The shot Ayers referred to was a shot about three minutes into the overtime, a blistering slapshot from Maine’s Colin Shields.
“He’s a real competitor,” said Maine interim head coach Tim Whitehead after the game. “When he made that glove save, I was extremely impressed. He played great tonight.”
Umile said that he left the decision of playing up to Ayers.
“Once the hand specialist said that he wouldn’t do any more damage, I let him decide what he wanted to do. It wasn’t my decision. He really wanted to play.”
UNH forward David Busch said that by playing, Ayers gave the Wildcats a huge lift.
“You thought there was no way he was going to be able to come back,” Busch said. “We got word late last night that he was okay, and we were all relieved. It’s tough to play in a building like this, and that gave us so much confidence to see him back there.”
The game, just like Friday night, was a battle to the end. Both teams were even through the first nine minutes, until UNH got sustained pressure on a power play.
Kevin Truelson passed along the blue line to Tim Horst, who sent a rocket slapshot toward the net. The puck ticked off of a skate in front and Busch got a stick on it.
“I stuck my stick out and just nicked it,” Busch said. “It just barely hit the toe of my stick blade.” It was enough to sneak past screened netminder Mike Morrison to short-side post at 9:21.
UNH held the lead and controlled most of the second period until Patrick Foley put them up 2-0 on a similar play.
A Truelson shot hit bodies in front of Morrison, who was again screened. The puck went right to Foley, camped out in the low slot. He redirected it into the open side at 11:25 of the second.
UNH clearly had momentum on its side, but a bouncing puck in the defensive end swung the momentum to Maine with only 15 seconds left in the period.
A bad clearing attempt by UNH came off the boards to Niko Dimitrakos in the high slot. He quickly touch-passed to Matt Greyeyes, who threw to the front. There to get it was Tom Reimann, who deked and then beat Ayers upstairs for his tenth of the year to make 2-1.
“I put my head up and the puck was on my stick,” Reimann said. “I was like, ‘What do I now?’ so I put it were [the goalie] wasn’t.”
“It was definitely a momentum swinger,” Maine captain Peter Metcalf said. They controlled the game to that point, but the goal gave us the momentum to go in the third.”
Metcalf ended up tying the game on a faceoff in the UNH zone. Ben Murphy won the draw back to him at the left point. He slapped the puck toward the net through traffic and went stick side high. Ayers never saw the shot.
“I just tried to get it on net,” Metcalf said. “It was a good job by Murph to get it back to me and Falco crossed right in front of the goalie. I took a little of it to get it on net, and a hole opened up over his blocker.”
Both teams had good chances, but the goalies kept the game tied. Morrison was helped by the crossbar with seven minutes left. A Sean Collins shot that beat him cleanly hit iron, and was then cleared by the defense.
In the overtime, he was helped by freshman defenseman Matt Deschamps. He held the near post and stopped a shot while Morrison was out of the net. Morrison did redeem himself with a great pad save on a breakaway by Jim Abbott.
Ayers was forced to make a stick save on Martin Kariya off a faceoff as regulation ran out. Then, he made the huge save on Shields later in the extra frame.
Both teams saw the result as beneficial.
“It was very important to come back and get a point,” Whitehead said. “We obviously wanted to win, but we wanted to make sure that we didn’t split.”
“I have to give them credit,” said Reimann. “They played well. It gives us confidence taking three out of four [points] from a great team like them.”
“We played a pretty good game until,” Umile said. “We’re happy we got the point, since we were playing on our heels most of the third period.”
“We’re disappointed that we gave up the lead,” said Busch. “But, with everything happened last night, and playing here, it’s a good point to get. And we stayed in first place, so that’s important.”
Ayers is scheduled to have surgery on his injured wrist early next week. He is expected to miss 4-6 weeks, but possibly as much as two months.
UNH will host Providence on Sunday, February 10, while Maine next plays at Boston College on Friday, February 8.