ORONO, Maine — On Friday night, in a snow-encrusted Alfond Arena, one team delivered a statement, while another managed to squeak out the slightest of murmurs.
Resurrecting ghosts from Alfond’s past, Maine convincingly and thoroughly disposed of a talented Massachusetts-Lowell squad, 7-2, in Game 1 of the foes’ Hockey East quarterfinal series. Anchored by an explosive first two periods, the Black Bears won their fifth straight Hockey East tournament decision.
The streak, which extends back to last season’s remarkable title run by the Black Bears, came largely on the heels of a sensational performance by All-American netminder Jimmy Howard. Continuing to peak at the right time, Howard hauled in 26 saves, surrendering one goal.
“It’s awesome — that’s the only way I can put it,” said Howard of the win. “But it’s not over yet; we still have one more game to win and we can’t be satisfied. The game could have been a lot closer then it was.”
With both opponents currently fighting for their NCAA tournament lives, the tension, a near-fever pitch, was not lost on Howard, who knows full well the loser of the series is likely to get golf season under way early.
“It’s playoff hockey and the guys know this is win or go home for us,” said Howard.
River Hawk keeper John Yaros was plastered for six goals, making 23 saves in 40 minutes of play. Still, Lowell head coach Blaise MacDonald was enthusiastic about his team’s chance despite the opening setback.
“This game means nothing, turn the page and move on to tomorrow,” said MacDonald. “The fact of the matter is that in a three-game series the second game is the most important, no matter what.”
The game marked the Black Bears’ fourth straight victory over Lowell. Only two weeks ago, Maine swept the River Hawks in a two-game series at Alfond Arena. Much like that series, the Black Bears managed success on special teams, caressing the Lowell net for four power-play goals.
“I think we persevered on the power play,” said Whitehead. “I thought Yaros made some great saves early and it seemed like it was going to be tough to score, but before you know it we got a bounce and then that kind of broke the dam.”
That bounce came at 1:09 of the first period when John Ronan found the back of the net off a well-placed pass from Jon Jankus. Ronan’s goal gave Maine its early advantage, something the Black Bears never relinquished.
“I just shot it, I wish I could say I picked a corner but I just let it fly and it got through somehow,” said Ronan.
The Black Bears managed to strike again at 13:40 of the period, when Derek Damon snatched a quick rebound off Yaros and went top-shelf for his 13th tally of the year. The goal, on the power play, saw assists to Mike Lundin and Travis Ramsey.
Maine continued to pilfer Yaros’ goal when at 18:46 Michel Leveille recorded his 11th goal of the year. After two careful dekes at the top of the left circle, Leveille wristed a rocket into the mesh for the Maine’s second consecutive power-play goal. Leveille was assisted on the play by Bret Tyler and Keenan Hopson.
Leveille believed it was his teammates’ ability to screen Yaros that led to the goal.
“Brent Shepheard was doing a real good job in front of the net getting the goalie’s eye’s away,” said Leveille.
“No question we wanted to get out of the gates hard,” said Whitehead. “We felt, ‘Hey, we have a home-ice advantage, let’s use it and get out of the gate regardless of the score.’”
The Black Bears capitalized on the power play going 2-for-6 in the period.
Maine, however, cemented the outcome in the final three minutes of the second period with two quick goals. The first came on a Keith Johnson breakaway that saw the sophomore beat Yaros glove side with a mid-level shot over his leg pad. The unassisted goal came with three minutes remaining in the period. Johnson’s goal gave Maine a stark 5-0 advantage.
Greg Moore quickly followed with a highlight-reel goal of his own with only nine seconds on the clock. Moore, delicately waiting at the hash marks, ripped a one-timer off a cross from Bret Tyler into Yaros’ stick-side, top corner. The power-play score which was initially created by Leveille saw Shepheard garner an assist as well.
The two goals were buoyed by an earlier power-play goal by Bret Tyler at 5:24 of the period. On the ensuing play, Tyler sent a low shot from the point past Yaros into the back of the net. The freshman standout, in his first postseason appearance, hauled in an impressive three points on one goal and two assists.
“It feels great just to help my team to win — this is our season here,” said Tyler. “Coach always says, don’t be afraid to make plays and that was what I tried to do.”
The River Hawks managed to find a chink in Howard’s armor at 15:41 of the third period, when Cleve Kinley registered a goal off a great pass by Elias Godoy. It was Godoy’s 27th assist of the season.
“Obviously I was not happy with the third period and I also thought we took too many penalties,” said Whitehead. “We had a lot of unnecessary pressure on Jimmy.”
Less than a minute later, with Howard out and freshman Matt Lundin in net, Brian Bova scored his sixth goal of the year off a Todd Fletcher pass. The goal came at 16:12. Keith Johnson opened the scoring in the period at 10:21, giving Maine an overwhelming 7-0 advantage. Rob Bellamy and Keenan Hopson had the assists.
Maine finished the game outshooting the River Hawks 37-28.
Barely relishing the victory, Maine was already focusing on Game 2, and on punching its return trip to Boston for the Hockey East semifinals.
“We are going to have to be very sharp tomorrow night because the slate is clean,” said Whitehead. “It’s a best-of-3, not a one-game series. We know how dangerous their team can be.”
With the win Maine improves to 19-11-7, while Lowell falls to 20-11-4.
“We’d better be prepared tomorrow cause they are going to throw everything at us,” said Whitehead. “This thing is far from over.”