ORONO, Maine — Last March, Maine took down Massachusetts 2-1 in one of the most dramatic tournament battles in conference history. In a game that needed three extra frames to decide a winner, the Black Bears were able to steal a gut-wrenching victory over the Minutemen behind the astonishing play of Jimmy Howard in net and a heroic goal by forward Ben Murphy.
With the win, the Black Bears hoisted their fifth Hockey East title before a tired FleetCenter crowd. For UMass the defeat in the longest game in Hockey East History left them one game shy of earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and an entire offseason of contemplating the heartbreaking defeat.
Fast forward eight months, with the two teams seemingly headed in different directions, and Maine proved it still had the Minutemen’s number. On Friday, with considerably less drama, the Black Bears seized a convincing 6-2 victory over UMass at Alfond Arena.
With the two stars of last season’s epic battle, Howard and Murphy, hampered with injuries, the Black Bears relied on a potent offensive attack, highlighted by the impressive play of senior captain John Ronan and sophomore Brent Shepheard, who each finished the game with two goals.
For Maine the impressive showing could signal the end of a month of inconsistency that has seen the squad split its past four weekend series.
“It was very satisfying to get a good win against a really good team,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “One of the keys tonight was that we wanted to get back our home-ice advantage — we have lost more games up here recently than we had in the past few years.”
“We played with a lot of passion, it was a good step for us,” said Whitehead. “I thought it was a good, solid team effort.”
With the decision, the Black Bears who are currently ranked No. 12 in the country the USCHO.com/CSTV poll, improved to 7-6-0 on the year. More importantly, Maine pushed its Hockey East record to 4-3-0 in conference competition.
For the Minutemen, the loss meant seeing their record drop to 6-5-1 overall and 3-3-1 in Hockey East play.
From the first whistle, the Black Bears dictated a feverish pace that would climax in the second period, when Maine tallied three pivotal goals that put the contest out of reach for the Minutemen.
The second period’s offensive explosion saw Ronan score his first goal of the decision and sophomore Josh Soares register the eventual game winner. The game-winning goal saw the forward snatch an easy rebound off Winer’s right pad, then with little room to maneuver send a rocket into the far side of Winer’s net. Jon Jankus and Bret Tyler recorded their second assists of the game on the goal that came at 8:06 of the period to give the Black Bears a 3-2 advantage.
Ronan kicked off the scoring for the Black Bears in the period after receiving an excellent pass from Jankus while crossing into the Minuteman defensive zone. Ronan then proceeded to fire a laser over Winer’s glove and into the back of the mesh. Tyler also received an assist on the play that came at 3:57 of the second.
“That was a great transition play,” said Ronan. “We were working hard and it showed out there on the ice.”
The early goal helped the Black Bears pull even with UMass, which had grabbed its first lead of the game only moments earlier. At 1:54 of the first P.J. Fenton recorded his second goal of the game when he sent a tap shot past a shaky Howard in net. Fenton was assisted on the goal by teammate Dusty Demianiuk.
Keenan Hopson concluded the scoring in the period after skillfully weaving through the Minuteman defense, forcing a one-on-one with UMass goaltender Gabe Winer. Hopson found the back of the net after sending a rocket through the five-hole at 16:29 of the second.
Whitehead touched on the key to the second period.
“I feel the difference in the period was that we were able to finish the opportunities we had,” said Whitehead. “From there we were able to ride the momentum.”
The Black Bears added two more goals in the third on second-string goalie Tim Warner, who replaced Winer at the start of the period. Maine struck earlier, when Ronan notched his second goal of the game on a backhander right in front of the net. The play, at 1:54 of the period, saw Soares and Tim Maxwell earn the assists.
The final goal of the game came late in the match when Shepheard hammered home a rebound off a Michel Leveille shot. Maxwell earned his third assist of the game on the play.
The Black Bears got on the scoreboard first in the game when Shepheard recorded his fifth goal of the season at 8:28 of the first. Leveille and Hopson merited assists on the play.
Although considerably outplayed throughout the opening period, UMass pulled even with Maine at 16:41 when P.J. Fenton snatched a juicy rebound off Howard for an easy goal.
In net for Maine, Howard picked up the victory after surrendering two goals and hauling in 10 saves. On the opposing side, UMass saw Winer collect 17 saves en route to the loss. The Minutemen finished the match with Warner in net registering 14 saves.
“I believe this game was good progress — we’ve had trouble winning our first game of the weekend so far this season,” said Whitehead. “I think the win was important mainly for the confidence factor.”
Maine will hope to pick up its first weekend sweep in over month on Sunday against the Friars with a 2 p.m. start in Portland, while the Minutemen will be idle till next Wednesday when it faces Vermont in Burlington. The game is scheduled to start at 7 p.m.