ST. PAUL, Minn. — From the same team that brought you the clinic on how not to start a Frozen Four came other lessons on how to wrestle away control of a game in the second period and seal the deal in the third.
The Maine Black Bears, they of incredible strength and fortitude in this, a trying season on many fronts, are one win away from a national championship, delivered from a dominating final two periods in a 7-2 victory over New Hampshire in a national semifinal Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center.
Senior captain Peter Metcalf scored carbon-copy goals 2 minutes, 20 seconds apart in the second period to erase a one-goal Wildcats lead and put the Black Bears ahead for good.
Metcalf, winger Paul Falco and center Robert Liscak, celebrating his 24th birthday, each had two goals and an assist, and Maine goaltender Mike Morrison made 23 saves to propel the Black Bears to the national championship game for the fourth time. They’re 2-1 in title games, having won in 1993 and 1999 and lost in 1995.
They scored four goals in the third period, the backbreaker Liscak’s second of the night, off a turnover in the New Hampshire zone, for a 4-2 lead 8:16 into the third.
Yet all this came after a horrendous start for the Black Bears (26-10-7). New Hampshire (30-7-3) scored just 21 seconds into the game after Metcalf threw an ill-advised diagonal pass through his defensive zone and got a power play just three seconds after the goal that resulted.
Somehow, though, it’s not surprising that Maine could find the power to get past that kind of setback. It’s what the Black Bears have had to do all season.
Longtime coach Shawn Walsh lost his battle with cancer in September, just before the team was set to open this season. Just 3-3-1 through the first month of the season, Maine had to rally just to get to the NCAA tournament, then had to summon up the strength for two wins at the East Regional just to get to this point.
“We still have a job to do,” Maine interim coach Tim Whitehead cautioned, pointing at his team’s championship game against the winner of Thursday’s second semifinal, Minnesota or Michigan.
In the second and third periods Thursday, though, it was simply a dismantling of a Hockey East rival, one which beat Maine in the conference finals three weeks ago.
Metcalf, the senior captain, scored a pair of second-period goals from the left point, giving Maine a 3-2 lead after two periods.
The defenseman’s goals, at 3:37 and 5:57 of the second period, were copies of each other. Neither appeared to be altered by any traffic in front of the net. UNH goaltender Michael Ayers looked like he had a chance to make both saves, but the puck got past him on both occasions.
And when the Black Bears grabbed the two-goal lead in the third period, things really started to unravel for the Wildcats.
An off-the-boards clearing attempt from UNH freshman defenseman Tyson Teplitsky went straight to Maine’s Todd Jackson at the right point. Jackson made a beeline for the Wildcats’ net but passed to Liscak just before he got there.
Liscak saw room between Ayers’ pads and snuck the puck into the net.
“It was probably a backbreaker for them,” said Liscak, who also scored the Black Bears’ first goal. “They had a couple hit the post and had some good chances. So it was probably a breaking point for them.”
Falco’s two goals were Nos. 6 and 7 for Maine, capping off a dynamic offensive showing — the kind UNH has produced so many times this season. Lucas Lawson also scored for Maine, and Steve Saviano and Sean Collins scored New Hampshire’s goals.
A seven-goal output was the last thing on the minds of Metcalf and the Black Bears, though, scant seconds into the game.
Metcalf’s diagonal pass out of the right corner was intercepted by Saviano, who took a shot that deflected off the stick of Maine defenseman Cliff Loya and over Morrison’s left shoulder 21 seconds in.
“Did I get an assist on that?” Metcalf quipped later. “It was a great pass.”
Maine defenseman Prestin Ryan took a high-sticking penalty just three seconds later, further adding to the Black Bears’ early woes.
“It didn’t matter whether they got the first goal,” Metcalf said. “To be honest with you, I’m glad they got the first goal. I didn’t want to up 3-0 going into the third and be worrying about that. Getting that penalty after threw us on our heels, … but the guys just stayed focused.”
The Black Bears said they didn’t do anything out of the ordinary to hold Darren Haydar, the national scoring leader and New Hampshire’s finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, without a point and to only two shots.
Whatever they didn’t do, though, seemed to work.
“They just outworked us,” Haydar said. “We made some poor decisions and they came back to bite us.”
Said Wildcats coach Dick Umile: “We did not play our best game — none of us. That includes players [and] coaches.”
Ayers faced 40 shots, and that he allowed some goals on saveable shots gave the Maine players more confidence to put the puck on the net.
“They just played a better game than us,” Ayers said. “Physically, mentally, everything.”