BOSTON — Seventeen thousand, one hundred twenty-two fans — most of them dressed in Granite State garb to signify their loyalty — witnessed history on Saturday night as New Hampshire finally got the postseason monkey off its back, beating North Country rival Maine, 3-1, to capture its first-ever Hockey East championship.
Sophomore Steve Saviano scored what just might be the biggest goal in school history, capitalizing off a Maine turnover with 3:48 to play and wristing it over Maine goaltender Matt Yeats (25 saves) to extend the Wildcats lead, seal the victory and send the largest crowd in Hockey East history into pandemonium.
“It’s awesome — we made history tonight,” said UNH goaltender Michael Ayers (31 saves). “There’s been so many players who have played season after season who haven’t had the chance.”
Saviano’s historic goal was made possible only because hometown and high school mate Sean Collins put UNH ahead for good early in the second period, scoring on the power play at 1:16 to break a 1-1 tie.
“We’ve done very well [recruiting] local kids out of the Boston area,” said UNH coach Dick Umile, who had coached in three previous Hockey East title games only to come out on the losing end. “[Collins and Saviano] were lucky to learn a lot from linemate Darren Haydar.”
Haydar, though, joked that maybe he was the one learning the lessons.
“I think I’m the guy fitting in with them,” said Haydar, who is a strong candidate for the Hobey Baker and was named the Hockey East tournament MVP. “They kind of have this Reading combination that I’m trying to fit in with.”
The game was a classic championship and a defensive masterpiece. UNH scored first in the opening period only to have Maine respond with a power-play goal late in the second. But Collins’ tally on the power play at the beginning of the third was the goal that Maine coach Tim Whitehead felt was critical.
“In a tight game where a goal finally goes in, it’s just a huge boost of momentum for the team that scores. You have to score real quick to stifle it. Otherwise it just keeps building momentum and it seems like you’re skating uphill sometimes,” said Whitehead.
After UNH’s go-ahead goal, Maine was limited to only nine shots in the third period, most of them coming in the closing minutes after UNH had taken the 3-1 lead.
The night saw Hockey East shatter the old attendance mark for a championship game and a two-night weekend. Though played in Boston where the biggest rivalry is Boston College-Boston University, Maine and UNH proved that their hockey faithful will travel any distance to celebrate.
“[The faithful hockey following] was one of the main reasons that I decided to go to UNH,” said Umile, himself a UNH graduate in 1972. “Coming down here to the FleetCenter we get some of the largest crowds, especially playing Maine.”
A tight first period saw UNH draw first blood, tallying on the power play at 8:16. Jim Abbott’s shot from the center of the blue line struck a Maine defender, changing directions and passing Yeats for the 1-0 lead.
The goal was the first of two on the man advantage for the Wildcats Saturday, a unit that has been clicking at nearly 30 percent this season.
“When you get to the playoffs, everybody knows everybody, the teams are so even and the games are so tight-checking that special teams are critical,” said Umile, whose club killed off three of four Maine power plays. “We were fortunate to score two goals, but special-teams situations for us this year have been very strong.”
Trailing 1-0 to start the second, Maine buzzed around the UNH net, putting high-quality shots on Ayers. No save was better than one on fourth-liner Ben Murphy at the 16-minute mark.
After Ayers made a save at the right post, the puck bounced to an open Murphy at the opposite side. Ayers, though, came across the crease and flashed a highlight-film glove save to rob the rookie and maintain the lead.
Maine finally solved Ayers 1:16 before the intermission. On the power play, a Colin Shields’ blast from the point caught Ayers moving and beat him between the legs to even the game at one.
But 45 seconds later, Robert Liscak took a penalty for hitting from behind while Maine was attacking in the UNH zone. Though the Wildcats couldn’t score before the end of the frame, the penalty proved costly early in the third.
At 1:16, Collins’ shot from the top of the zone deflected off Yeats and into the net, giving the Wildcats a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“I got a piece of [the shot] with my glove and my shoulder,” said Yeats. “I thought I got enough of it, but I didn’t.”
From there, similar to Friday’s semifinal win over UMass-Lowell, UNH used its league-best defense to shut down the Maine attack and set up the final goal, Saviano’s perfect wrister with 3:48 left to play.
Finally, after years of hoping and being close, New Hampshire had its victory.
“This one was for the players, the university and everyone involved in UNH,” said Umile. “This is a tribute to everyone who came out and supported the tournament.”
Still ahead for both teams lies the NCAA tournament. Before Saturday’s action started, UNH had clinched a bye in the East Regional, and Saturday’s win guarantees them the number-one seed.
Maine, on the other hand, will not be so lucky. The loss, combined with other action around the country Saturday, dropped the Black Bears to sixth in the PairWise Rankings, which could translate to a third or fourth seed in the East Region.
The Black Bears, though, don’t care about the seed — only one thing.
“[Losing] hurts, but we have to go back and worry about our next opponent,” said Maine captain Peter Metcalf. “We can see who we get, work hard and just go from there.
“But we’ve got our loss out of the way.”