ORONO, Maine — Just another night at Alfond Arena.
Well, not exactly.
On Saturday, before an electric crowd at the revered arena, Maine knocked off defending national champion Denver 4-2 to conclude a weekend sweep of the second-ranked team in the country.
In a game that saw one ejection, 11 power-play opportunities, and a lingering fog on the ice surface that just wouldn’t go away, the Black Bears used a resurgent offensive attack to shock the highly-touted Pioneers. Buoyed by the steady play of freshman netminder Ben Bishop, the Black Bears exorcised some personal demons from a heartbreaking 2004 NCAA title game loss to Denver.
“There was a little bit of revenge on our minds,” said Maine assistant captain Steve Mullin. “It definitely feels good to beat a Western team after all the talk that they were going to clean up again this year. To do it in our barn, in front of our own fans, makes that even much more special.”
“We went out there trying to prove something for ourselves and if it makes a statement for Hockey East too, that’s even better.”
Denver’s undoing came nearly eight minutes into the decision when the Black Bears’ Keenan Hopson pounced on a loose puck for a breakaway goal, giving Maine a 2-1 advantage. The tally came less than five minutes after the Black Bears had tied the game at 7:53 of the first period on a Derek Damon goal.
On the go-ahead goal, Hopson snatched a free puck at the neutral zone and sped in for a one-on-one with Pioneer goalie Peter Mannino. Mike Lundin received his second assist on the play.
“I was late getting back and I was behind their defensemen when it got chipped up to me,” said Hopson. “From there I got a breakaway and I went five-hole.”
The goal, at 12:10 of the first period, gave the Black Bears their first lead of the game, which they would never surrender.
Maine head coach Tim Whitehead put the game in perspective for the Black Bears.
“Tonight’s game was a weird game because of the ice conditions, and it was choppy. It’s early, so let’s not get too carried away,” said Whitehead. “Obviously it’s a big sweep for us but at the same time we have so much work ahead of us.”
Denver head coach George Gwozdecky touched upon what he felt was the difference.
“We had a couple of great opportunities were pucks bounced here or there and didn’t land on our sticks,” said Gwozdecky. “The end result was that Maine had a terrific weekend, they got better and better as the weekend went on. As usual, I think they are going to be one of the contenders in the stretch run.”
The performance of Bishop was also on the mind of Gwozdecky.
“I thought the young man played extremely well,” said Gwozdecky. “I thought he played with great poise. Hey he only gave up three goals all weekend long and that’s pretty darn good.”
Bishop, in only the third collegiate appearance of his career, garnered 23 saves, while Mannino finished with 17 saves for Denver.
At 5:37 of the second period Maine delivered the biggest blow when Josh Soares rifled a laser past Mannino for the 3-1 lead. Soares scored the goal after jumping on a juicy rebound.
“I thought the third goal was a huge goal for them,” said Gwozdecky. “We had been on the ice way too long on our power play, and we turned it over and they came down and scored a goal that was possibly as big of a momentum changer as there was in the game.”
The tally, which came on a two-on-one charge by Maine, saw Rob Bellamy snatch an assist. It was Soares’ third goal of the young season.
Maine delivered the final dagger at 2:46 of the third period when its other Hopson registered a goal. John Hopson, a senior transfer from Alaska-Anchorage, used some smooth stickhandling to pilfer the net.
“It was just a good effort down low cycling the puck and we got it up and Billy got it over to John,” said Keenan Hopson. “Then John snuck it under the goalie’s arm.”
Denver recorded the last goal of the game at 19:34 with the outcome all but decided. Ryan Dingle notched the power-play goal, his first of the year.
Maine completed the game 0-for-4 on the power play. Denver went 1-for-7, becoming the first team to score on Maine’s penalty kill this season.
“The special team tonight was real good; it was a shame they got that last one,” said Whitehead. “It’s been a real strong point for us in the first two weekends.”
With the win, Maine moves to 3-1-0 on the year, while Denver falls to 0-2-0.
It’s not the first time Denver has fallen in back-to-back games to open the year. Last season, the Pioneers opened 0-2 and went on to win the national title for the second straight year.
Still, Gwozdecky sees plenty of room for improvement.
“You need to have the proper mindset coming into a series; you can’t wait till the second night of a series, otherwise you’re setting yourself up for failure,” said Gwozdecky. “You have to be ready to play as hard as you can with a high level of intensity and that is what we have to develop for next weekend.”
Denver returns to action next weekend on the road against Air Force and Notre Dame, while Maine will stay put for another homestand against Alabama-Huntsville.
“I know Alabama-Huntsville is looking at this series much like we were looking at this one,” said Whitehead. “We have seen some upsets around the country already — some big ones — and Alabama, the last time they were up here were really fabulous. We’ve got to be very careful; this is a very dangerous weekend coming up for us, but you know I think this team will be ready.”