DURHAM, N.H. — It was a game that promised great goaltending, great drama to the final buzzer and great emotion. In the end, at least there was great emotion.
For a while it looked like there wouldn’t even be much of that after Maine silenced a “Whittemore White Out” crowd and their Thunderstix with a 3-1 lead in the opening five minutes. New Hampshire rallied from its sleepwalking, however, with five unanswered goals including four in an eight-minute span in the second period for a 6-3 win.
The victory gives New Hampshire (6-1-0, 3-0-0 HEA) a gigantic four-point weekend following a Friday night 4-0 shutout of Boston University.
“These are the games you want to be involved in,” UNH coach Dick Umile said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
For Maine, the loss ends a tortuous weekend which it began undefeated as the number-one team in the country, but ended with losses to key rivals Boston College (4-1) and UNH.
The biggest surprise came in the goaltending for both sides. One night earlier UNH All-American Michael Ayers had stopped 34 shots for his fourth consecutive shutout against Boston University. Days before, Hockey East had announced that Maine’s Frank Doyle would share with teammate Jimmy Howard its Goaltender of the Month Award.
You wouldn’t have guessed it from the opening of the game. By the time the game was just 4:24 old Maine had scored three goals on its first four shots. And by the end of the second period UNH had scored six goals, giving Doyle one of his worst collegiate losses.
“It’s tough when they score two goals on three shots and they come down on a third one and not all your confidence is there,” Ayers said. “I have a tendency to drop early and that’s what I did [on the third goal]. But after they scored, I said, ‘Okay, that’s it. No more.’”
Ayers proved true to those words, redeeming himself after the slow start by stopping the next 34 shots.
“At no point was I worried about where we were as a team,” Ayers said. “I thought if we buried our chances — and obviously we were going to get them sooner or later — we’d be fine. But it was frustrating at the beginning.”
For Doyle the frustrating part came in the middle when the four-goal outburst turned a close game into clear sailing for the Wildcats. It didn’t help that defensemen Prestin Ryan (game disqualification suspension) and Troy Barnes (concussion) were out of the lineup. Doyle would finish with 19 saves on 25 shots.
“That happens,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “He’s been pretty spectacular this year. He’ll bounce back the next game.”
Whitehead also defended his shorthanded group of blueliners, who lost several key one-on-one battles.
“Our defense obviously had a rough second period, but at the same time we competed hard tonight,” he said. “Last night was a tough loss for us, but tonight I was proud of the guys and how they competed.”
With a sea of white jerseys and the echoing of Thunderstix serving as the backdrop, Maine stunned the sellout crowd with a strange goal at the 30-second mark. Todd Jackson and Greg Moore broke two-on-one with Jackson sliding the puck to his linemate just in front of the crease. Moore got little wood on it, however, and the opportunity appeared to have been squandered. Ayers didn’t control the dribbler, however, and a whack by Derek Damon sent it sliding slow-motion over the goal line.
UNH answered at 3:12 with a one-timer by Brian Yandle from the top of the left faceoff circle. Within barely more than a minute, however, Maine had scored on a Dustin Penner tally from the slot and then a John Ronan break in from the right boards that he roofed over Ayers.
The three goals had UNH fans wondering about the imposter posing as their All-American goaltender, but in fairness the defense appeared to have fallen asleep as well. Whoever the impostor was, though, he was evicted from Ayers’ body and the senior rebounded to shut down the Black Bears the rest of the way.
The travails were only beginning for Doyle and the Maine defense, however. The two-goal lead and the silenced crowd lasted less than eight minutes as Yandle beat Doyle from the perimeter again to make it a 3-2 game and bring out the thundersticks in a big way.
The margin held until midway through the second period as Ayers made two gigantic saves on Michel Leveille, the first on a breakaway and the second all alone in front, and Doyle responded with a comparable stop on a Sean Collins shorthanded breakaway. Ayers then foiled Keith Johnson, who had split the UNH defense, to keep his team in the game until the floodgates opened.
And open they did. The blitzkrieg began at 11:41 when a Nathan Martz shot trickled through Doyle’s pads and rolled over the goal line slow-motion much like the Maine tally that opened the game. Whether this one made it over the line, however, was in question. The goal light went on just as a defenseman cleared the puck away so referee Jeff Bunyon and linesmen Joe Ross and Joe Andrews conferred and then queried the goal judge. After invoking everything but videotape review from the New Hampshire Public TV cameras, the play was ruled a goal to tie it at 3-3.
Steve Saviano then scored a “heart-and-soul” game-breaker, fending everyone off for the puck in the right faceoff circle, circling out to the point before ripping a shot top shelf. In terms of import, tenacity and artistic merit the goal was, in the current lingo, “sick.”
Justin Aikins then slid a nice pass through the Black Bear defense to send Collins in on Doyle and the sniper capitalized, beating the netminder low to the blocker side. Soon after, Aikins finished off the run himself, fighting off two defenders and lifting a shot past the beleaguered Doyle.
There were some faintly nervous moments for UNH late in the scoreless third period when Maine went on a five-on-three power play, but Maine never closed the gap.
The Black Bears will look to rebound next week when they host Northeastern and UMass-Lowell. UNH hosts BC at the Verizon Center in Manchester, N.H., on Wednesday and then travels to Providence on Friday.