BOSTON — As the Hockey East season winds down, coaches understand one thing is usually true, night in and night out: goaltending is strong.
So Friday, when two hot goaltenders decided to duke it out — Northeastern’s Keni Gibson and Maine’s Frank Doyle-the crowd of 2,154 at Matthews Arena was in for a treat.
The result was a combined 61 saves, but the Maine offense broke Gibson for three goals, skating to a high-octane 3-1 victory over the Huskies.
A 1-1 tie entering the third period saw Maine’s Jeff Mushaluk score a disputed goal at 3:26 and Greg Moore add insurance at 8:50 to give the Black Bears the win despite a top-notch NU effort.
“It was a real hard-fought game that we were fortunate went our way,” said Maine head coach Tim Whitehead, whose Black Bears climbed within a point of second-place Massachusetts, which fell 5-2 to Boston College on Friday. “It was exactly the game that we expected to play and we’re going to have to refocus for the exact same game again tomorrow night.”
The winning goal came when Mushaluk’s shot appeared to be deflected by Maine forward Luciano Aquino’s high stick in the slot. Referee Conrad Hache could not distinguish which player deflected the shot and credited the goal to Mushaluk.
“Some people said it might have been a high stick,” said NU coach Bruce Crowder, who admitted that he did not see the shot. “I don’t know, but we’ll find out [when we watch] the video.”
Regardless, the question surrounding the goal was not to take away from Maine’s lead, celebration and momentum. The Black Bears turned up the offense when Todd Jackson fed a perfect pass to a wide-open Greg Moore with 11:10 to play to give Maine breathing room.
“The third goal was real important,” said Whitehead. “To get a two-goal lead in a game like this, we weren’t really expecting it. Usually a two-goal lead isn’t that safe, but in this particular game you felt it was because goals were so tough to come by.”
The offensive outburst for the Black Bears to start the third came right after a major momentum swing at the end of the second. After Northeastern had drawn two penalties late in the period, the Black Bears faced a 1:32 five-on-three shorthand. But the Maine penalty kill, which ranked third in the league entering the game, kept the puck to the perimeter away from the net, and when the puck found the net, Doyle stood tall.
“It was a big momentum swing when we killed the 5-on-3 and went into the locker room,” said Whitehead. “We were able to come out, oddly enough, with a little momentum and then get a quick one.”
The opening period saw a 10-minute feeling out period for each team. With play concentrated in the neutral zone, neither goaltender was faced a lot of trouble in the early going, but that all changed midway through the frame.
By the end of the period, though scoreless, Maine held a 13-8 advantage in shots, which included breakaways by Dustin Penner, who put a nifty move on NU’s Brian Deeth to walk in alone, and fourth-liner Josh Soares, who similar to Penner, tried to beat Gibson (31 saves) five-hole only to be denied.
Northeastern’s sole quality scoring chance came with three minutes remaining as Mike Morris stole a breakout pass, made room for himself in the slot and fired a hard shot that Doyle (30 saves) was forced to turn aside with a quick blocker.
Early in the second, Maine broke the deadlock. On the power play for the third time in the game, the Black Bears improved their anemic 11.4 percent league rate, pushing a rebound past Gibson. Gibson made a save on the original shot from the point but was knocked out of his crease by Maine’s Penner. With the open net, Mike Hamilton was able to push the puck across the line to give Maine the 1-0 lead at 5:39.
Another controversial goal, both Gibson and Crowder argued the call but to deaf ears. Hache motioned that Penner was pushed into the goalie by a Northeastern defender.
Even still, the Huskies evened the score just minutes later. Morris picked off a pass from defender Mike Lundin in the neutral zone. Behind the defense, Morris skated two-on-none with Jason Guerriero, froze the goalie and slid a perfect pass across the crease that Guerriero buried to knot the game at 7:45.
The goal certainly gave the Huskies life as they would hold the territorial advantage for the remainder of the period. That was when the Huskies forced Maine into penalties and took away the two-man advantage, only to see it backfire from an overmatched power play unit.
“I’ll take the blame for [the power play],” said Crowder man-up unit has hovered around the middle of the league for much of the year. “We just didn’t generate and we didn’t move the puck. Those are missed opportunities.”
From Whitehead’s perspective, he was pleased with the penalty kill, which was a perfect 6-for-6, but unhappy with the amount of penalties his club took.
“We can’t give [a team] that many looks on the power play,” said Whitehead. “I was disappointed in some of our penalties and I need to watch the video to see if we need to make adjustments.”
Those adjustments will have to come quickly, as these same two teams square off again in less than 24 hours. According to Whitehead, Maine will likely give NU a different look with Jimmy Howard in the net, but as Crowder notes, that matters little.
“Their best two players both play the same position,” said Crowder, “and we’ll see the other one tomorrow night.”