Minute By Minute

Before sophomore Gabe Winer went down with an injury during a game-day practice prior to Massachusetts’ first-round meeting with Lowell, Tim Warner had been on the ice for just over 70 minutes during the 2003-04 season.

All four games were losses, and three were on the road. He came in to relieve Winer on each occasion, usually performing the mop-up duty well, making as many as 15 saves in one appearance, and never allowing more than one goal. He was relied on to ensure that ugly games didn’t get uglier, like the 7-2 loss to Nebraska-Omaha on Nov. 28, or the 6-1 defeat to Boston University on Feb. 20.

He played for 38:17 against Harvard on Dec. 13, after Winer was wiped out in a collision at the net. Other than that, he didn’t play more than 14 minutes in any appearance.

Tim Warner was, for all intents and purposes, a fixture on the bench for the Minutemen this season.

That all changed on March 11. During a routine pregame practice that day, Winer went down into his butterfly stance. Nothing was routine after that. Winer injured himself badly enough that there was no chance he would play that night, the first game of a playoff series with UMass’ sister school at Lowell.

The jaws of fans who had followed the Minutemen all season hit the Mullins Center floor when Warner, the quiet backup who lost his job to Winer last year, led the Minutemen out onto the ice for pregame warmups.

A palpable nervousness circulated throughout the building, as all the expected questions were raised. How could a goaltender, who hadn’t seen more than a period of action in three months, react to being thrown into the starting role just hours before the biggest game of the year?

Warner, a Waltham, Mass., native whose brother Mike has captained the Minutemen to a 19-11-6 record this season, answered the doubts with a splendid 39-save performance, backstopping UMass to a 4-2 win. The next night, Lowell put just 23 shots on Warner, and he turned aside all but one, leading the Minutemen into the semifinals of the Hockey East tournament.

Ever the competitor in practice, Warner never saw legitimate action this season until called into duty against the River Hawks.

Warner has played in 17 games during his three years at UMass. This year, he was on the ice for less time than it takes to watch most feature films.

Part of that has been bad timing. Warner came in as a freshman during former Minuteman goaltender Mike Johnson’s senior year in 2001-02. Johnson was the incumbent, and Warner played just 10 games that season.

The next year, Warner was pushed out of the starting slot by Winer, who led the Minutemen to a team-record 17 wins, posting three 30-save games, and helping UMass to a first-ever appearance in the Hockey East semifinals, where the Minutemen were ousted by New Hampshire.

Last season, when the Minutemen made their improbable run to the FleetCenter, Warner was a nonentity, the safeguard against a Winer injury or meltdown that never came. He participated in the hoopla of the Minutemen’s first-ever appearance on Causeway Street, he appeared in front of the Boston crowd, his name appears on the roster of the team that played the thrilling semifinal game with New Hampshire.

But Tim Warner might as well have been absent, because Winer, then a freshman, had a rookie season to remember, and was firmly planted in the Minutemen’s crease for the program’s biggest game since its reinstitution in 1993.

Friday, Warner was the goaltender for the Minutemen’s 5-2 win over New Hampshire, and the distance from bench to crease was greater than just 100-odd feet. In a stroke of good fortune for the Avon Old Farms product, he was the man in net for the Minutemen’s playoff run, something he fully appreciated given the events of the last two years.

“It hurt, it really did hurt,” Warner said of the years on the bench. “I thought I should have been in there — I think I’m proving that now. I wish it had happened earlier, but it’s happening now, and it’s a thing you’ve got to deal with. You get a game here and there, and that’s great, but to know the game’s resting on you, it makes it that much better.”

As hard as it’s been, his struggles for playing time have taken a toll on a few of his biggest fans, including brother Mike.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Mike, who played under coach John Gardner at Avon Old Farms for one year with Tim. “We came in here thinking that it was going to be like always, he was going to be the goalie, and I was going to play forward, and every game we were going to be on the ice. So it’s been pretty hard on him, but it’s been pretty hard on me too, watching him struggle.

“To see him now, doing what he’s doing, to me it’s a little motivation to play a little better, playing in front of my little brother. And it’s awesome for my family. My parents have had a hard time watching him sit on the bench for three years, so it’s just great.”

In the semifinal Friday night, Warner let up two goals early, including one in the first period, but sealed things after that, stopping 27 of 29 Wildcat shots to send UMass to its first-ever appearance in the Hockey East final.

Warner was both lucky and good in alternating fashion. He let up a terrifying rebound that slipped through his arm with 16:15 to go in the game, but Sean Collins’ attempt to put it home bounced off the post and back under Warner’s body. Just 30 seconds later, he showed talent with the mitt, too, when he made a spectacular glove save to keep the Minutemen’s deficit at one.

Then, with just under six minutes to go, a poetic stroke of fortune found the Minutemen. After unexpectedly riding Tim Warner for the last three games, it was older brother Mike who came through.

He poked in a rebound off a Kevin Jarman attempt, lifting the Minutemen to a 3-2 lead. Mike Warner added another goal with 1:55 to go, sending a shot from the boards into the vacant UNH net. While those in maroon and white celebrated Mike’s work, the biggest smile was underneath the steel and molded plastic of Tim’s jet-black mask.

“It was awesome; he rarely scores all year, and then he gets four in three [games]? There’s nothing better than that,” Tim said.

The younger Warner took over after that, making another nice glove save with 2:41 to go. The Wildcats never got close to scoring again, and the Minutemen cruised to victory.

“When he really [bore] down positionally,” Cahoon said, “it made things easier.”

Saturday, the Minutemen will likely see just how easy Tim Warner, the backup who has become the hero, can make it.