AMHERST, Mass. — Pre-game warmups at the Mullins Center on the Amherst campus of Massachusetts always start the same way. The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” begins to boom over the P.A., and the Minuteman hockey team takes the ice, led by starting goaltender Gabe Winer.
Well, they almost always start that way. Thursday night, in the first-ever Hockey East playoff game at the Mullins Center, junior Tim Warner got the starting nod and led the Minutemen to victory.
Warner, who has been relegated to a seldom-used backup role all season, made 39 stops, tying a career best, and brother Mike scored twice to lead Massachusetts past sister school Massachusetts-Lowell 6-3 at the Mullins Center. The Minutemen take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series.
Warner was a midday replacement for sophomore Gabe Winer, who started all 31 regular season games for the Minutemen, playing all but 72 minutes this season. Winer was injured during a morning practice Thursday, giving Warner, who had only appeared for 68 minutes over four games all year, a shot at stardom.
He didn’t disappoint. Despite the three goals allowed, Warner was on top of nearly every Lowell rush and made a number of dandy saves, with a little help from a defensive corps that played one of its best games of the season.
“Our ‘D’ did a good job tonight,” said Warner in the post-game press conference, flanked by brother Mike and Minuteman coach Don Cahoon. “They kept most of the shots to the outside.”
For Mike Warner, the senior tri-captain who will soon play his last game in a Minuteman uniform, Thursday night was a source of pride and redemption.
“It’s been hard the last few years, having Tim work so hard and not have many chances to play.”
Warner went so far as to help brother Tim, potting two crucial goals and coming up one empty-netter short of a hat trick. Warner had an open look from center ice at Mass.-Lowell’s empty cage with 40 seconds to go but was hauled down by the stick of a Lowell defender with no penalty called.
The Minutemen broke the game open with three goals in the second period and added one more to finish the River Hawks off in the third. Stephen Werner started the outburst with one of the prettiest goals of Massachusetts’ season. Sitting in the box for tripping, Werner was released just as senior defenseman Thomas Pck gained possession in the UMass zone. He flipped the puck to Werner, landing it at his feet just before it crossed the blue line. Werner quickly covered the distance to Davidson with no defensemen in front of him, and slipped a backhand past the sprawling goaltender’s left foot at 3:03 of the middle frame.
Mike Warner added to the total under three minutes later, when he and linemates Werner and Kevin Jarman crashed Davidson’s net. The trio got a couple of shots off before Warner managed to stuff it under Davidson’s pads. Pck added the Minutemen’s fifth goal at 11:03 of the second, a power-play tally assisted by Jarman. The two took off on a 2-on-1, and Jarman slipped the puck over to the Austrian at the hashmarks, where Pck had an open shot at the near side of the net, and buried it to send the teams to the locker rooms with a 5-1 Massachusetts lead at the end of the second.
Despite scoring first, Lowell could never sustain pressure, and although the River Hawks peppered Warner’s goal with 42 shots, they didn’t show any signs of life until midway through the third, when they scored two goals to cut the deficit.
Ben Walter snuck in to the left-wing post and chipped the puck over Warner’s right shoulder. It trickled in to make the score 5-2 with 8:30 to go in the final period. Bobby Robins put back a rebound with 3:25 remaining, but the River Hawks got no closer.
“It’s tough to come back on the road in the Hockey East playoffs when you’re down 4-1,” Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald said. “I kind of liked the way we started: For a young team in the playoffs, I thought we played very well in the first period. But [Massachusetts] made plays. You put the puck on Mauldin’s stick, boom, in the net. Pck, boom, in the net.”
The Minutemen came back from an early 1-0 deficit quickly, when Dusty Demianiuk broke up a play at center ice, and the ensuing loose puck got to Tim Vitek’s stick, who took off on a breakaway. Vitek faked once in front of Davidson and backhanded the shot over the goaltender’s left shoulder at 10:54.
Greg Mauldin gave Massachusetts the lead six and a half minutes later, when he blistered a slapshot off a Thomas Pck feed, and the Minutemen carried the lead into the first intermission.
The two teams face off again Friday night at the Mullins Center at 7 p.m.