LOWELL, Mass. — After the final 23 seconds ticked away following Jonathan Maniff’s game winner, the Massachusetts-Lowell Pep Band broke into “I’m a Believer.”
The song served as a fitting salute to a team that had lost 14 straight to Maine coming into this season, but turned the tables on its nemesis in the Florida College Classic and then proved on this night that the holiday tournament championship was no fluke.
“We think the sky is the limit,” Maniff said. “All the media thinks that we’re real young and it’s maybe next year for us. But everybody in this locker room is thinking this year.”
Lowell had taken 2-0 lead early in the first period, but two Maine power-play goals sent the game into its final minute deadlocked. Ben Holmstrom won the faceoff to Maniff, who faked a pass back to the defense, cut to the net and after faking short side, skated behind the net and backhanded it in. It was Maniff’s second goal of the night and fourth in two games against Maine.
“He’s our Manny Ramirez,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald said referring to the Red Sox slugger. “If you’re a goal scorer, you’d better score goals and he’s proven this year that that’s what he does. He just believes in himself when the puck is on his stick down low.”
With Northeastern and Providence also winning, Lowell (12-8-4, 7-6-4 HEA) remains in fifth place in Hockey East. Although no ground was gained, the River Hawks continued to show poise beyond their years and the potential for a strong stretch run.
“We got what we deserved,” MacDonald said. “These are the types of games that we weren’t winning last year. We’d play well, be right in it, and we’d lose, 3-2. This year we’ve been able to win some of these games.
“The players have a real stick-to-it attitude and they really understand how valuable the little inches and every second is. Those are great lessons to learn.”
For Maine (8-12-3, 4-9-3 HEA), the loss was a significant setback. Although still in striking distance for eighth place and the final playoff berth since Massachusetts also lost, the Black Bears couldn’t be happy with the early hole they dug for themselves and especially the defensive breakdowns that caused it.
“We lost battles,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “We lost the battle for the puck and we lost the battle at the net-front on both goals.
“We fought back hard, but we’re past the point of silver linings. As we get closer to the playoffs, each game takes on more significance.”
Lowell grabbed the first-period advantage, holding a 2-0 lead until surrendering a power-play goal with 12 seconds remaining.
Goaltender Carter Hutton stopped a point-blank Brett Tyler shot in the opening minute, but after that point the River Hawks took advantage of poor Maine play in front of its own net.
At 3:35, Kory Falite scored what looked like the easiest goal of his career. Holmstrom shot from a sharp angle along the left boards and the rebound caromed to Falite in front. With no one tying him up and the net wide open, he buried the gimme.
With a delayed penalty pending against Maine five minutes later, Chris Auger passed from behind the net to an unguarded Maniff on the left post. The sophomore put his ninth of the year past goaltender Ben Bishop.
The River Hawks appeared ready to take a two-goal lead into the locker room until they picked up the only penalty of the period with 1:30 remaining. Maine, which had generated only two shots, generated several good chances before scoring on its fifth shot on the advantage. Attempting to hit Glenn Belmore, Wes Clark centered the puck from behind the net and it deflected off a defenseman past Hutton.
Maine evened the score at 7:53 of the second period on another Clark power-play goal, this one coming from the right post.
Ironically, Maine had come into the game with Hockey East’s worst power play, converting on only 9.9 percent of its chances while Lowell’s penalty kill had ranked first with an 88.8 percentage.
Maine returns to action on Saturday night at Massachusetts. Lowell travels to Vermont on Sunday afternoon.