ORONO, Maine — In a game highlighted by the play of some Hockey East’s bigger names, it was an unheralded forward who stole the show.
With Maine and Massachusetts-Lowell deadlocked at 3 a mere 51 seconds into overtime, Black Bear Keith Johnson rocketed a shot past netminder Peter Vetri, propelling his squad to a 4-3 victory and a 1-0 lead in its quarterfinal series against the seventh-seeded River Hawks.
The play started innocently enough with Black Bear assistant captain Michel Leveille rifling a goal-line pass to forward Billy Ryan, who was waiting patiently in the neutral zone. From there, Ryan raced in to the far circle where he attracted the attention of River Hawk defender Kelly Sullivan. As Sullivan closed in, Ryan heard someone yelling.
It was Johnson, and he wanted the puck.
“I jumped off the boards for a change and I was in the neutral zone for a transition play when Billy drove wide,” said Johnson. “I was just yelling for it and he heard me.”
“It was great communication,” said Ryan. “If he didn’t yell I wouldn’t have dropped it; when he yelled I gave him a no-look pass.”
With Sullivan focusing on Ryan, Johnson had a free shot at Vetri.
“Honestly, I was just trying to get it on net,” said Johnson. “I wasn’t aiming or anything. It could have been the hardest shot of my career. It’s probably the biggest goal I have scored here. It’s just a great feeling right now.” At the time, Vetri thought he had a good angle on the shot.
“I might have been down a little early but I was piping in and it was a good shot,” said Vetri, who finished the contest with a commendable 34 saves. For Johnson and the Black Bears, the thrilling victory marked not only their 10th in a row against the River Hawks but their 11th all-time in postseason play. Maine has never lost to Massachusetts-Lowell in the Hockey East tournament.
“It was a big win but we got to end that celebration with tonight,” said Johnson. “We got to focus tomorrow night. We really want to take care of business tomorrow and get to the TD Banknorth Garden. Obviously you want to get the first game of a three-game series it really puts the pressure on Lowell.”
After the game, however, all the talk was on Johnson and his surprising laser to the back of the net.
“We were all joking around asking him where that came from,” said Ryan. “It was a bomb. The only thing that matter is that he put it in the net.”
Maine head coach Tim Whitehead had high praise for the often overlooked second-liner.
“He always works so hard,” said Whitehead. “He is the type-of-kid who will always surprise you with the big play in a key moment. He sometimes gets forgotten in the recaps of the games because he’s not always up on the score sheet. But he plays so hard. I am very happy for him that he was the one that scored because he doesn’t always get rewarded for that hard work.”
The mark overshadowed the play of Vetri and milestone nights for Greg Moore and Derek Damon, who recorded their 100th point and 50th goal, respectively.
Johnson’s fifth tally of the season capped off a feverish comeback for Maine, who trailed 3-2 halfway through the third period. In danger of becoming only the second team in Hockey East history to lose as a second seed, the Black Bears called on the assistance of their senior captain Greg Moore. At 9:51, Moore answered with his 25th goal of the season and second of the night thanks largely to a sensational play by another senior, Derek Damon.
“It was just an unbelievable play by Damon,” said Greg Moore about the equalizer. “He stay composed and just kicked it over to me for a wide open net. It wasn’t a very difficult goal.”
“The guy is tied up in front and I expecting the puck to come to me but he makes a phenomenal play and kicks it tape to tape to the guy in front for an open net,” said Vetri. “Any time a guy makes a play like that it’s worthy of a goal.” Moore positioned to the right of Vetri’s glove smacked it into a wide open net. Josh Soares started the play with a pass from the near boards.
“The big play there was Derek Damon. That was tremendous,” said Whitehead. “I told him right when he came to the bench that was one of the best plays under pressure that I can remember seeing in a long, long time. To have the poise to catch that with his foot and that kick it. Wow.”
The goal marked the second time Maine was able to fight off a Massachusetts Lowell advantage. Early in the first at 8:47, River Hawk forward Jason Tejchma opened the scoring with a shorthanded tap-in that eluded Maine’s Ben Bishop. Five minutes later, the Black Bears responded with a goal of their own from Moore. This time, while on the power play, Moore sent a low-laying slapshot to the front of the River Hawks net for his 100th career point. Maine wasn’t done yet either.
At 17:23, Damon capitalized on a misplayed rebound that left Vetri hung out to dry. With the whole near side of the net open, Damon registered his 50th career goal. Despite an impressive effort the underdog River Hawks, Maine entered the first intermission up 2-1.
“We played a real good road game,” said Vetri. “We controlled most of the momentum but we just took to many penalties. We were killing penalties all night and that takes a toll on your better players. It’s hard for them to produce 5-on-5 after they have been killing all night.”
Although the Black Bears carried a one-goal advantage into the second, Whitehead felt his squad was not creating the chances they needed.
“I didn’t feel that we did a great job of getting to the net front early in the game,” said Whitehead. “Lowell did an excellent job of shot blocking and filling the shooting lanes. They eliminated the second and third shots. We left the door open for them to tie it up.”
And they did. With the second period nearly wrapped up, Jeremy Hall deflected a point shot from Booby Robins past Bishop. The goal coming at 19:12 slipped through the five-hole of Bishop, who collected 21, saves in the decision. Massachusetts Lowell continued to press early in the third period seeing it pay off with hustle goal by Nick Monroe at 2:24. On the ensuing play Monroe snatched a bouncing loose puck at the hash marks and proceeded to bring it on Bishop, where he went top shelf.
The two foes return to Alfond tomorrow for Game Two of the best of three series.
“We’re excited for the win but the weekend is hardly over so we just got to regroup and live off the excitement of this win,” said Moore.