ORONO, Maine — Maine fans hauled their brooms out of the closet for Saturday night’s matchup against Massachusetts-Lowell, and when the final horn sounded at the end of the third period, they waved them high, as the 12th-ranked Black Bears swept the 15th-ranked River Hawks with a 5-1 win.
Maine, the fourth-seeded team in Hockey East, continued its playoff dominance of fifth-seeded Lowell by completing the two-game sweep of the best-of-three conference quarterfinal. It was the Black Bears’ ninth straight victory over the River Hawks in postseason action.
Perhaps the Black Bear fans’ chant of “This is our house” was warranted. All nine playoff wins against Lowell came at Maine’s Alfond Arena in Orono. The win Saturday came on the heels of a 7-2 decision in game one on Friday night and also marked the Black Bears’ sixth consecutive victory in Hockey East tournament play.
“I’m just happy for my players,” said Maine head coach Tim Whitehead, referring to his team’s return to Boston for the conference semifinal. “It was a long, hard road this year, and we knew it would be. I’m real happy they have this opportunity. They’ve worked hard to get it.”
Five different players scored for the Black Bears. Keenan Hopson anchored the Maine offensive effort, recording three assists. Michel Leveille picked up the game-winning goal on the power play.
With the four-on-three man advantage, Hopson brushed a pass to Leveille who was waiting in the center of the faceoff circle. Leveille swept a one-timer off the ice, past freshman netminder Peter Vetri and into the upper deck of the net to make it 2-0 at 14:30 of the second. Leveille’s goal was the sixth power play tally on the weekend for the Black Bears.
“Hopson made a great pass, and I just put it on net, and the goalie wasn’t there,” said Leveille, who also gave credit to sophomore forward Josh Soares for setting a screen on the play. “Soares doesn’t get any point on that goal, but he’s the one taking the crosscheck from the defenseman in front of the goal and taking the goalie’s eyes away, and that’s why it looked like an easy goal.”
Maine center Derek Damon said making it difficult for Vetri, who was playing in his first collegiate playoff game, to see was all part of the game plan.
“We talked about it in practice that we wanted to take his eyes away,” said Damon. “He’s a rookie goalie, and we wanted to send the message that it was going to be a long night.” River Hawk head coach Blaise MacDonald credited the Black Bear’s All-American goaltender Jimmy Howard for Maine’s success.
“Maine seemed to be playing their best hockey at the most important time of the season, which has been a trademark of Maine hockey for years,” said MacDonald. “And I think a lot of that stems from the fact that they have exceptional goaltending.”
Howard stopped 21 of 22 shots on goal, matching his performance on Friday night when he also only allowed one goal. Vetri made 33 saves on 37 shots.
Lowell came out flat to start the game. The Black Bears outshot the River Hawks 6-0 in the first ten minutes, but Lowell bounced back with seven shots on goal in the last half of the first. Maine ended up outshooting Lowell 9-7 in the opening period.
“The first was the best period of hockey we’ve played against Maine all year,” said MacDonald. “We played our worst hockey against Maine this season, but I was very proud of that period.”
Soares drew first blood for the Black Bears on a redirected power play goal that made the scoreboard read 1-0. From beyond the right faceoff circle, defenseman Bret Tyler fired a shot toward the net that deflected off Soares’s stick past Vetri’s left blocker pad. The tally came at the 3:07 mark of the second.
“I just got my stick free from the defenseman and angled it and tilted the puck into the net,” said Soares. “It was a good shot, but I was just fortunate to tip it in.”
The Black Bears doubled their lead to 2-0 later in the second on Leveille’s power play score.
The second period saw 13 penalties whistled. Lowell had seven to Maine’s five.
“When they get two power play goals, which have been our Achilles heel all weekend, it’s almost like ‘game over’ with Howard in the net,” said MacDonald. “We were actually playing very well in the second, but I guess penalties were the end of us.”
Damon put his team up 3-0 on a long shot just in front of the blue line 8:14 into the final period. Streaking through the left circle, Mike Hamilton dropped a pass back to Damon who entered the zone and corralled the puck. Damon’s one-timer lit the lamp for his 14th goal of the season.
“Hamilton was fortunate to settle the puck down and took the defenseman wide with him and just left me an open lane to the net,” said Damon. “I just put my head down and fired it. I put everything I had on it.”
Lowell captain Andrew Martin cut the lead to 3-1 at the 10:40 mark of the closing period. After Howard saved a Cleve Kinley shot, Martin pounced on the rebound and backhanded the puck past the goaltender’s glove.
Four minutes later, freshman Billy Ryan responded with a backhander of his own off an initial shot from Hopson to make it 4-1. Freshman right-winger Rob Bellamy also had an assist on the play.
With 3:26 remaining in the game, Vetri vacated the net. From beyond center ice, Bellamy took advantage of the empty net and capped the scoring at 5-1.
The all-freshman line of Ryan, Hopson and Bellamy figured into the scoring of four of Maine’s five goals.
“I guess we just work well together,” said Hopson. “We’ve all played hockey for years and now at the end of the season, we just don’t feel like freshman anymore.”
“The freshman got it done,” said Whitehead. “They showed a lot composure, a lot of poise. They made plays under pressure and stuck to the game plan.”
Maine improves to 20-11-7 overall while Lowell drops to 20-12-4. For the Black Bears, the win marks their seventh straight 20-win season.
For MacDonald’s River Hawks, all is not lost with the loss against Maine.
“The fact that we only have two seniors who didn’t play a huge role speaks well for us,” MacDonald said about the future. “I think we finally found a couple goaltenders that can compete at this level. We had enough bumps in the road along our journey so that we feel the sting of the battle and want to get back and right the wrong.” As for the Black Bears, the team will return to the FleetCenter in Boston, where memories of a 1-0 loss in the national championship against Denver still linger.
“But that was last year,” said Howard. “It’s way behind us now. It’s a new year.”
Maine’s semifinal opponent depends on the outcome of the Boston University-Providence series, which is currently tied 1-1. If Boston University wins, the Black Bears will face Boston College. If Providence takes it, they will square off with New Hampshire.
“I think it will be a positive going back there,” Whitehead said of the return to the FleetCenter. “It was obviously disappointing not beating Denver, but if we stick to our game plan, we’ll have an opportunity to win, and we’ll see what happens from there.