ALBANY, N.Y. — For Maine, 2-1 is magic.
The Black Bears advanced to the Frozen Four when Mike Hamilton scored at 3:27 to defeat Wisconsin, 2-1 in overtime of the East Regional Final. The win came a week after Maine captured the Hockey East Championship with a 2-1 triple overtime win.
“This was a great game for us,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “I said yesterday that it would be tough to top the triple-overtime game and then we had a four-goal comeback. Here we are with another crazy one.”
“I’m obviously very pleased to be going to the Frozen Four.”
Remarkably, Maine played its seventh straight one-goal game. The Black Bears are 6-0 in the postseason, with all coming by the slimmest of margins.
This will be the second trip to the Frozen Four in three years for Maine. In 2002, the Black Bears lost in the title game to Minnesota, 4-3, in overtime.
Hamilton gave his team that berth when he got the puck at the left post and pushed it into the crease. A crowd collapsed on the net, and the puck went off Wisconsin defenseman Andy Wozniewski and barely over the goal line. The play survived a video replay challenge.
“It was kind of a broken play,” Hamilton said. “It went off the defenseman’s shin pad and just barely went over the line … The coaches have been telling me to use my strength and drive to the net.”
Hamilton has had a hot hand for Maine lately. Although he has just seven goals this year, three have come in the last two weeks. He scored the third-period goal to give Maine a 1-0 win over Boston University in the Hockey East semifinal. Friday, he started his team’s four-goal third period to rally from a 4-1 deficit against Harvard.
“If he keeps this up, we might think he can score goals,” Whitehead joked.
The game winner was just the second goal Wisconsin goaltender Bernd Brckler, the regional’s Most Outstanding Player, surrendered on the weekend.
“[Hamilton] was driving to the net,” Brckler said. “I made the initial save, but and the rebound trickled out to my right and barely crossed the line.”
Brckler was not consoled by his trophy.
“It’s an empty feeling,” he said. “We came away short and our guys are in the locker room with their heads down. So that doesn’t mean much. We’ve come a long way as a young team.”
Wisconsin, fresh off a 1-0 overtime win over Ohio State, initially struggled with Maine’s quickness and surrendered an early goal, but regained its physical posture by the second period, ultimately outshooting the Black Bears, 37-28.
On a Badger team with 15 freshmen and sophomores, a senior, Rene Bourque, tied the score at one at 17:37 of the second period. Ryan MacMurchy won the faceoff back to Tom Gilbert, who blasted a shot that MacMurchy tipped. It handcuffed Maine goaltender Jimmy Howard, and Bourque picked up the rebound from the side of the net and skated across the goal, out-waiting Howard for his 16th goal of the season.
Bourque’s goal broke the ice for the Badgers, who were knocking on the doorstep all period. Fifteen seconds into the frame, Adam Burish was sprung on a breakaway that Howard kicked away. Later, defenseman Ryan Suter pulled the string on a defenseman to walk in all alone, and Howard just barely got a piece of that shot with his pad.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Did you play to win or did you play to lose?’ said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves. “Our team put their hearts on a sleeve. Isn’t it the paradox of life that last night we were all smiles and tonight we are at the other end of the spectrum?”
Howard’s second-period performance alone justified Whitehead’s decision to start him over Frank Doyle. Howard, who entered the regional with a 1.05 goals against average, surrendered four goals in two periods Friday against Harvard. Doyle played a perfect third period, allowing Maine to come back from a 4-1 deficit and defeat the Crimson, 5-4.
Howard made 36 saves Saturday and lowered his goals against average to 1.20, a virtual tie with Cornell’s David LeNeveu for the best all-time, set last year.
“As coaches we felt that either way [playing Howard or Doyle] we had an opportunity to win the game,” Whitehead said. “Our gut feeling was that Jimmy was playing at such an elite level … We did not protect Jimmy last night.”
Maine had appeared to pick up where it left off against Harvard offensively. Colin Shields got the Black Bears on the board early. Skating around the left faceoff circle, he froze the defensemen with a quick move and rifled a shot over Brckler’s glove at 1:32 of the first period.
“I can’t explain how excited we are to go to the Fleet Center,” Shields said. “The last time we were there it was part of a dream season. I think that with the team we have, it’s a great reward for us.”
Wisconsin had been angling for its first trip to the Frozen Four since 1992, when it lost to Lake Superior State in an infamous title game, and Eaves, in just his second year as coach, has rapidly returned his program to national prominence.
With so much talent returning, including Brckler, the team should be even better next year.
“At the beginning of the year, when we were young together, Brckler allowed us to have short memory on our mistakes,” Eaves said. “We started to catch up to the level that Bernd was playing at.”
Maine now gets a chance to erase a bitter memory: losing the 2002 championship on a Minnesota power-play goal. The Pepsi Arena inadvertently reminded everyone of that, showing the highlight of the Golden Gophers’ championship winner as the Black Bears were taking the ice to start the third period.
“It would be great to win a championship … I think the past is the past,” Whitehead said. “We really appreciate how tough it is as a team to reach the Frozen Four, making it two years ago and failing to do so last year. We keep saying that eventually we are going to win another one.”
For Maine, Michel Leveille, Shields, Prestin Ryan, and Hamilton made the All-Regional Team. Brckler and Friday’s overtime hero, Dan Boeser, were the Badger representatives.