ORONO, Maine — A dominating performance by the Maine Black Bears almost went for naught as a determined New Hampshire team rallied from a four-goal deficit, only to fall short with a 5-4 final score.
You could hardly blame Maine fans for rushing to warm up their cars on a cold Maine winter night, with the Black Bears holding a 5-1 lead with just five minutes remaining in the game. But the fans that departed missed the most exciting part of the game.
Two quick Wildcat scores, a backhanded goal by Steve Saviano and an unassisted effort from freshman Daniel Winnik, cut the Black Bear lead in half and put UNH within striking distance.
“We took some chances when we had to, and they paid off,” said New Hampshire coach Dick Umile. “We had a chance there at the end.”
An excellent chance, as a slashing penalty was called on Maine’s Greg Moore with less than two minutes remaining. With UNH replacement goalie Jeff Pietrasiak (7 saves) lifted for an extra attacker, the Wildcats pulled within one on a six on four goal by Jacob Micflikier with just 15
seconds left in regulation.
What had been a comfortable 5-1 lead scant moments before was now a razor-thin one goal game. A final UNH flurry put a jump in the hearts of the remaining Maine fans, but the 5-4 score stood as the clock ticked to zero.
“We were pleased with fifty-five minutes of the game,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “This almost seemed like a loss, but then I remind myself we got two points.”
Maine got two points, but fell in the Hockey East standings. It was announced after the game that Mass.-Lowell forfeited three league games due to using an ineligible player, and as a result, Massachusetts vaulted past Maine and into second place in the league.
It was all Maine early in this game, as the Black Bears jumped out to a 3-0 lead after the first period. The first goal was scored when Maine’s John Ronan fired a shot from the corner across the slot to an open Mike Hamilton, who knocked the puck into the half-open net.
Just a few minutes later, the Black Bears made it 2-0 with a Dustin Penner wrister from the top of the slot over Ayers’ shoulder, and Maine took a commanding three-goal lead at 13:31 when Ayers lost track of a Ronan redirection of a Jon Jankus pass and let the puck trickle past him into the goal.
“That third goal was kind of crazy, with Michael pushing it into the net himself,” said Umile.
UNH, and Mike Ayers, had allowed three goals on the game’s first 10 shots, uncharacteristic of the Wildcat goalie, who entered the game with a .911 save percentage this season. After allowing five goals, and flailing away at a puck that bounced off the pipe, Ayers (23 saves) was replaced in goal by Pietrasiak.
The New Hampshire offense was struggling, which was never more obvious than in the waning moments of the first period, as Maine’s Jeff Mushaluk took a penalty for holding. The majority of the penalty was spent in the Wildcats’ defensive zone, and New Hampshire’s nationally-ranked power play managed only one weak shot that was easily stopped by Maine goalie Frank Doyle.
The aggressive Maine penalty kill, which caused Boston University fits in a 8-4 Maine win last Friday, was well in effect. But turnabout is fair play, and the Wildcats nearly got on the board during an immediately following Maine man advantage, as both Sean Collins and Steve Saviano were stopped on a shorthanded rush.
The New Hampshire effort to come back in the game was reminiscent of the first meeting between these two teams this season, in Durham. In that contest, Maine jumped to a 3-1 lead just five minutes in, but New Hampshire rallied to take a 6-3 final.
Determined not to repeat that mistake with a 3-0 lead after the first, the Black Bears continued to press in the second period, gaining a four goal cushion as Derek Damon redirected a Colin Shields power-play shot. It was Shields’ 100th career point.
The Wildcats got on the board with a goal in the final minute of the second when Saviano scored his 21st goal of the season, roofing it over Doyle.
“We kept clawing back and clawing back,” said Saviano. “We just ran out of time. We’ll try to carry the momentum from the end of tonight’s game into tomorrow night.”
In the followup Saturday night against New Hampshire (15-8-3), Maine (18-6-1) will try to halt an emerging pattern over the previous two weekends, when after winning on Friday (3-0 over UMass on January 16th, 8-4 over Boston University on January 23rd), the Black Bears have followed that with a 1-0 loss the next day against the same opponent.
“We need to see if we can get that killer instinct,” said Whitehead. “Not just at the end of a game like tonight, but in the second game of a series.