ORONO, Maine — Well, that’s over.
On Saturday, behind the tenacious play of Brett Hemingway and Josh Ciocco, UNH (14-10-4, 10-6-3 Hockey East) garnered a dramatic 7-4 victory over Maine (18-10-0, 11-8-0) and bid farewell to an eight game winless streak at Alfond Arena.
For the Wildcats, the win marked not only the end of a three-game losing skid but also their first over Maine head coach Tim Whitehead at Alfond.
“We haven’t won here since 2000 so that was huge,” said Ciocco. “Coach was really fired up in the dressing room. It’s been six years for him since he got a win here. We are just happy as a team.”
In a game that saw it all from zamboni problems to a three-goal rally, UNH was able to regain sole possession of fourth place in the Hockey East standings.
“A lot of crazy things happen here,” said Umile. “I am thinking after the first period that we played great and now we got a delay with the zamboni. I was like ‘you got to be kidding me,’ what else can go wrong we come up here. I said ‘we might not even be able to finish this game. I was a wreck.”
Despite the return of seven forwards, who were suspended the previous night, and holding a four-goal advantage with 18 minutes to go, the Wildcats didn’t feel comfortable until the final two minutes when they slammed home two empty-net goals.
“That’s Maine; they don’t quit,” said Umile. “They stayed with it and obviously it got a little nerve-racking there. But the fact of the matter is that the guys played a real solid game. We are real pleased with our effort.”
Ciocco, who registered the eventual game winner, felt Friday night’s 4-1 loss to Maine played a pivotal role in the victory.
“I think the players that were disciplined played hard tonight. I give credit to the guys that played last night, they set the pace.”
“Ultimately the seven of us felt responsible for that loss,” said Ciocco, also one of the lucky seven. “After the game you could tell by the way the coaches were acting toward us that they knew we were responsible for that loss. We had to win [Saturday]. There was no way about it. That was a championship game for us. We absolutely had to win that game.”
And they did. Thanks in large part because of those seven guys, who accounted for five of the Wildcat goals.
“We knew we were going to be a better team after we got through this,” said Umile. “After all is said and done and what we have been through, it played out just like you would want it to play out.”
As for the Black Bears, this was not the ending they had envisioned.
“All good streaks come to an end,” said Maine forward Keith Johnson. “They are a good hockey club. We got to give credit to them; they really took it to us the first two periods. We gave it a little run in the third but it wasn’t enough.”
UNH’s seven goals marked the highest goal total for a visiting team at Alfond since 2001. As well, the loss will likely deliver a cruel blow to the Black Bears in the Pair Wise Rankings, where they are currently ranked 21st.
“We just didn’t come out ready,” said Moore. “Yeah, they had some guys that were fresh but I don’t think that is an excuse for us to not come and play hard as we can on a weekend like this when it’s on the line against our biggest rival; granted they played an amazing game all the way through.”
For the Wildcats, the game-winner came at 2:22 of the third when Ciocco broke free of the Maine defense for a breakaway on freshmen Ben Bishop. With no one but Bishop to beat, Ciocco sent a laser to the top right corner. The goal, which was assisted by Mike Radja, another forward making his return to the lineup, gave UNH an almost insurmountable 5-1 advantage.
Maine, however, was not about to go quietly.
With 4:54 to go in the third, Maine center Jon Jankus jammed a home a tally after UNH netminder Jeff Pietrasiak failed to clear the puck.
“This whole game you were on the edge of your seat,” said Ciocco. “We were up 5-1 and every guy on our bench knew that game wasn’t over. When they scored that second goal there were eight minutes left and that was probably one of the longest eight minutes of my college career.”
Eight minutes later, the Black Bears managed to pull within two when Greg Moore, scoring his 20th of the season, rifled a difficult shot from the goal line past Pietrasiak.
“That frigging kid Greg Moore; it seems like every time he was on the ice and touched the puck he was throwing it on net and stuff was happening,” said Ciocco.
Now down two, Maine looked to senior Derek Damon for help. And they got it.
At 18:34 of the third, Damon raced in from the far blue line and rocketed a shot off the pads of Pietrasiak. With the puck bouncing free, Billy Ryan proceeded to slam it into the back of the net. The Black Bears had pulled to within one.
But UNH wasn’t worried. Remember, they had Jacob Mcflikier.
At 18:54 with Bishop pulled and the Black Bears pressing, Mcflikier stole the puck from defenseman Bret Tyler. With nothing but the net in front of him, Mcflikier ripped the mesh from just above the hash marks.
“We just kept telling everyone that we weren’t finished until the game’s over,” said Hemingway. “They started scoring some goals but I think we remain pretty calm even though the crowd was getting pretty crazy.”
A minute later he wrapped up the game with another empty netter, this time from Hemingway and Chris Murray.
“To score four goals on team like UNH is almost unheard of but we almost did it,” said Johnson. “It was just too little to late.”
That lead Johnson spoke of came in the first in the second period when the Wildcats got goals from Trevor Smith, Greg Collins and Hemingway. The biggest, which came from Hemingway with three seconds to go in the period, arrived only a minute after the Black Bears had swung momentum back on their side with a Greg Moore goal.
“I just barely squeaked it in,” said Hemingway. “It was just huge for us because they scored and we came right back. Whenever you score at the end of the period its deflating for the other team.”
In net for the Wildcats, Pietrasiak finished with 25 saves, while Matt Lundin and Ben Bishop combined for 35 saves. Bishop, who had five of those saves, replaced Lundin at the start of the third.
UNH outshot Maine, 34-16, in the first two periods en route to hauling in their first series win against the Black Bears since 2000.
Both teams return to action next Friday with the Black Bears headed to Vermont and the Wildcats back to Durham for a date with Merrimack.