ORONO, Maine — Usually, when a team of the caliber of Maine schedules a game against a Canadian college, you would expect an easy win.
Somebody forgot to tell the University of New Brunswick.
The Black Bears got everything they could handle from the Varsity Reds Friday night at Alfond Arena in the second game of the Black Bear Classic. New Brunswick was in the game throughout and only allowed Maine to eke out a tense 2-1 win.
“It’s a real benchmark for our hockey team at this point in the year,” New Brunswick coach Gardiner McDougall said. “It’s a progression. We wanted to get as many good caliber teams on our schedule as we could.”
Before the loss to Maine, the Varsity Reds tied the rookie squad from the American Hockey League’s St. John’s Flames, then beat last year’s Canadian college runner-up, Three Rivers, 5-3.
Part of the reason for McDougall’s ambitious scheduling is because New Brunswick is the host of Canada’s collegiate national championship tournament. That means they got an automatic berth into the field, but because it is on home ice, they want to put forth a team that can win it all.
“They are a very good hockey team,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said after the game. “They’ve got an excellent goaltender, veteran defensemen, and they’ve got some threats up front. We knew as coaches that this would be a tough game. I’m not so sure our players did, but we gutted out a good win.”
The goalies, New Brunswick’s Gene Chiarello and Maine rookie Jimmy Howard, were the stars. Both goalies made some fantastic saves to keep the opposition off the board throughout the night. Chiarello stopped 34 while Howard turned away 29 in his college debut.
Howard credited his performance to making the other team play his game.
“I try to slow the game down as much as possible,” Howard said, who froze the puck at just about every opportunity. “I want them to play at the pace that I want the game to be played at.”
Howard had to stop many golden scoring opportunities down the stretch. New Brunswick had a few great chances after sophomore Ben Murphy was hit with a two-minute holding penalty with just 2:24 left in the game. Howard slowed the pace down and was able to kick out some good chances after New Brunswick pulled Chiarello for the extra attacker.
“I just wanted to relax mentally and not give one up,” Howard said. “If you give one up there, it can really be a transition into the overtime, so I just try to bear down and keep the puck out of the net.”
Bearing down something Howard knows a little about. Last April, he backstopped the U.S. Under-18 National Team to its first-ever gold medal at the Under-18 World championships in Slovakia.
Maine senior assistant captain Robert Liscak opened the scoring at 9:05 of the first period on the power play. He found the puck loose at the left side of the crease, where Chiarello thought he had already covered the puck. He hadn’t as Liscak and Todd Jackson both kept jamming at it. Finally, Liscak was able to sneak inside the short side post to give Maine the early lead.
That lead evaporated early in the second, though, after New Brunswick won an offensive-zone faceoff. Defenseman Craig Mahon got the puck at the right point and riffled a hard shot to the net. Howard made the save, but the rebound came out to Todd Alexander all alone in front. He had the entire left side of the net open and didn’t miss. That tied the score at one at the 3:22 mark of the second.
It wasn’t until late in the second that Maine was able to get the winner. A grave defensive miscue cost the Varsity Reds dearly.
Mahon pinched in on Ben Murphy, but Murphy chipped the puck out of the zone to the right side. In an ill-advised attempt, the other defenseman, Brian Stewart, who was in the neutral zone, made a full-out dive to try and keep the puck in. He didn’t and it caused a two-on-none breakaway for Colin Shields and Tom Reimann.
“The defenseman kind of dove, because he thought he could get it, but it went right to my stick,” Shields said. “Tommy crossed over with me and I gave the puck. He knew I wanted it back, so I backed up, then he faked and passed it to me.”
Shields buried the feed at 16:51 to give Maine its final margin.
“I cranked it pretty good to make sure the goalie didn’t get a piece of it,” Shields said. He was robbed on four occasions, coming both before and after his goal, by Chiarello.
“Because it was such a close game this is a good win for us,” Shields said. “We all rallied behind each other. They had some good chances in the third and everyone stuck together defensively, and Jimmy came through for us.”
Maine will play its first countable game Saturday in the championship against Lake Superior State at 7:00 p.m. New Brunswick next plays in the consolation against Quinnipiac.