BOSTON, Mass. — Ben Bishop slammed his stick against the right post in frustration after allowing the game-winning goal in overtime last night at Agganis Arena, signaling the continuation of a downward spiral that’s carrying the University of Maine closer to missing the Hockey East playoffs, and doing just the opposite for Boston University.
Sophomore Luke Popko’s fourth goal of the season 10 seconds into the extra session lifted the Terriers to a 2-1 victory and raised their winning percentage back above .500 in conference play, an achievement BU coach Jack Parker and his players have been focused on since December. The Terriers (11-14-4, 9-8-3) are now tied with the University of Vermont for fifth place in Hockey East and sit three points away from the three-team log-jam for second.
“We knew what this game meant beforehand, especially if we go on a run here at the end,” Popko said. “We have the teams that you want to play; they’re all ahead of us, so we just control what we can.”
“I told them before the third period started, ‘Don’t forget guys, this is to put us over .500, we’ve got to get this game,’” Parker said. “They certainly responded, I thought they played very well.”
Directly off the center-ice draw to begin overtime, BU sophomore Brian Strait dumped the puck into the zone and freshman Colin Wilson tracked it down behind the net. Popko trailed the play, got to the inside of Maine defender Jeff Dimmen and received a beautiful backhanded centering pass from Wilson, which he one-touched into the net. Bishop got a piece of the puck, but not enough to prevent the Black Bears (8-16-3, 4-13-3) from dropping their sixth consecutive game and remain winless in seven attempts.
“He definitely got a piece of it; I didn’t even know it went it,” Popko said of his game-winning tally. “It was a dump-in and I just beat the guy to the net.”
For the first two periods, the Terriers overwhelmed Maine, winning races to the puck and looking for quality scoring opportunities on offense, which resulted in Bishop having to make 31 saves. Thanks to the senior playing one of his best games of the season, the Black Bears stole momentum in the third and forced BU goaltender Brett Bennett (17 saves) to make some difficult stops, denying two isolated scoring attempts by Rob Bellamy and Brett Tyler.
“I think we outplayed them in the third period and we had some great chances to win this game,” Bishop said.
An interference call on BU forward Chris Higgins 49 seconds into the contest triggered Maine’s only goal.
Senior captain Travis Ramsey collected the puck along the boards and took a shot that fluttered toward the net, but wasn’t handled cleanly in the crease by Bennett. While Bennett was fumbling to collect the puck, senior forward Wes Clark pushed it past the falling goaltender for his seventh score of the season.
It was an encouraging start for a unit converting on just 10 percent of its power play opportunities after leading the nation in power-play efficiency last season (25.4 percent), but the Black Bears were 0-of-5 with the man-advantage for the remainder of the game.
Following Maine’s initial score, the Terriers controlled play, peppering Bishop with a bevy of shots, including two lasers from junior Matt Gilroy and Wilson, as well as a clanker off the left post by freshman Nick Bonino.
“I thought in our first period we didn’t show very much poise,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “I thought we really dug ourselves a hole in the first and really missed an opportunity out of the gate to do a little more in that first period.”
BU’s continuous opening attack paid off in the form its first shorthanded score of the year.
With senior Ryan Weston off the ice for obstruction-interference, freshman Colby Cohen gained control of the puck at the Terriers’ blue line and sent an outlet pass to Bonino, who skated along the left boards, side-stepped Keenan Hopson and fired a hard centering pass directly onto the forehand of Higgins at the top of the crease. Higgins made a lightning-quick switch to his backhand and slid the puck into the virtually empty net for the equalizer and his ninth goal of the season at 11:14.
The Terriers had an opportunity to take the lead midway through the second when freshman Joe Pereira received a centering pass and appeared to have Bishop beat to the right. Bishop, however, sprawled out of the crease to try and poke-check the puck from Pereira. Bishop released his stick on the play, which forced Pereira’s shot wide, and was called for a throwing-the-stick interference penalty, served by freshman Robby Dee. BU attempted three quality shots, but all were turned aside by Bishop.
“I thought we moved the puck great on the power play, but we couldn’t put it by Ben,” Parker said. “On the power play, he played very, very well.”
“I thought I played alright,” Bishop said. “I felt good out there and I’m getting better every game.”
Maine wasn’t without its chances in the middle stanza either, as BU committed three penalties. In contrast to the Terriers’ unit, which was finding shooting lanes and keeping the puck in Maine’s defensive zone during the man-advantage, Maine struggled to maintain consistent pressure on special teams.
The Black Bears took only three shots on goal on their second-period power play opportunities, as the Terriers’ defense didn’t allow Maine to set up its attack, a testament to Maine’s struggling special teams, as well as BU’s improving kill.
“That’s been an Achilles heel for us all year long,” Parker said of the penalty kill. “We’ve got Bonino out there killing penalties now and he makes a great play on the shorthanded goal.”
Tomorrow night’s 7:00 contest should prove just as pivotal for these two teams, both of which are looking for a win for very different reasons.
“We’ve come back from the grave here and pulled ourselves up by the bootstrap and into this Hockey East fight,” Parker said.