DURHAM, N.H. — The goal that wasn’t and the goal that was.
With the score tied, 4-4, heading into the final minute of regulation, it was anyone’s game as New Hampshire and Maine were both going for the jugular. When Gustav Nyquist beat goaltender Matt DiGirolamo in a footrace for the puck above the tops of the faceoff circles, it looked like the Black Bears had pulled off a stirring 5-4 win to split the weekend series and keep alive their hopes of playoff home ice.
Unfortunately for Nyquist and his teammates however, he lost his balance as he took the puck and cut around DiGirolamo. Shooting as he was falling, Nyquist hit the post.
Play then transitioned back in the other direction. In little time, Paul Thompson, the nation’s No. 2 scorer, was carrying the puck on his off wing. He continued down low and from below the goal line backhanded a shot off Maine goaltender Shawn Sirman’s pads and into the net.
Predictably, the Whittemore Center exploded. The final 16 seconds counted down and the Wildcats had not only swept the weekend series, but also the season series with their archrival.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” UNH coach Dick Umile said with a satisfied smile. “Just a crazy finish. It was nuts. Crazy.”
Umile discounted any thought that the game-winner was merely a fluke or poor goaltending. It was the kind of play great goalscorers like Thompson make.
“He knows what he’s doing on that,” Umile said. “He’s done that before. He’s just got great composure and a great stick.
“That’s one of his patented moves coming down the off wing. He either throws a backhand pass in front or throws it off the goaltender’s pads.”
Surprisingly, it was the only goal of the night for the juggernaut line of Thompson, Phil DeSimone, and Mike Sislo.
“It was a pretty good feeling because the three of us didn’t have our best game tonight,” Thompson said. “Everybody else played awesome.
“I didn’t see how it went in, but I saw the place go nuts.”
With the win, UNH moves into sole possession of first place in Hockey East, using the first of two games in hand it had held over Boston College.
For Maine, the result could hardly have been more disastrous without injuries adding to the damage. The Black Bears came so close, pulling even at 3-3 in the third period on Kevin Beattie’s second goal of the night, only to surrender the lead on a terrible rebound allowed by Sirman that resulted in a Mike Borisenok tally and 4-3 UNH lead.
Not quitting, the Black Bears evened the game at 13:24 on a Will O’Neill and Jeff Dimmen collaboration and then had their best player, Nyquist, in position to seal the win.
Compounding matters, Merrimack trounced Massachusetts, 11-2, widening the gap to five points between the Black Bears and playoff home ice.
“We fought through a lot,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “I was proud of how we played. The guys were determined to steal some points on the road tonight, but perhaps it wasn’t meant to be. That was a tough one.”
Whitehead didn’t blame his goaltender for Thompson’s goal, even though it came from below the goal line.
“I’ve seen goals like that scored in the NHL,” Whitehead said. “It’s tough. Thompson is such a great scorer. He can score in every possible way.
“To make that play from below the goal line with his backhand, that’s an incredible play. I’m looking forward to his graduation.”
The finish was the culmination of a terrific see-saw game.
Just 45 seconds into it, Thompson threatened to pick up where he’d left off a night earlier but on a breakaway hit the post. Less than five minutes later though, the Wildcats got on the board with a faceoff goal. Austin Block won the draw and it deflected from Dalton Speelman to John Henrion at the top of the circle. Henrion put it into the top of the net, blocker side.
Maine retaliated at 13:07 when Nyquist put in the rebound of a Tanner House shot that DiGirolamo couldn’t control. The Black Bears then took their first lead of the weekend when House again set up a goal, this time on a perfect feed from the right faceoff circle to Beattie on the left post.
UNH drew back even in the final minute of the period. Mike Beck shot from the point and the rebound caromed to Henrion in the slot, where he slid it under the sprawling body of Sirman.
Freshman Kevin Goumas, who one night earlier had scored his first collegiate goal, made it two-for-two on the weekend, putting in the rebound of a Stevie Moses shot from the slot. With that, the Wildcats went into intermission holding a 3-2 lead, setting up the thrilling third period and its incredible finish.
Next weekend, New Hampshire takes on Merrimack in a home-and-home series. Maine hosts Vermont for two games.