Maine captain Will O’Neill only had one goal all season before tonight’s Hockey East semifinal against Boston University.
He picked a heck of a time to have a scoring outburst.
With Maine needing a win to keep alive its hopes of its first Hockey East title since 2004 – and with a Maine win basically clinching a berth in the NCAA tournament – the senior scored twice and added an assist to lead the Black Bears to a come-from-behind 5-3 win over Boston University in front of a crowd of 13,974 at TD Garden.
O’Neill would have had a hat trick on a breakaway if not for a great save by Kieran Millan.
“I’ve been getting shots and trying to shoot a little bit more here in the playoffs and down the stretch,” said O’Neill.
Joey Diamond added two goals for Maine and Dan Sullivan made 30 saves for the winners.
Matt Nieto scored twice for BU and Millan stopped 39 of the 43 shots he faced.
The only bad news for the Black Bears was that star left wing Spencer Abbott was injured when he was slammed into the boards by BU defenseman Sean Escobedo. Asked about his prognosis, Maine coach Tim Whitehead said, “Probably not good. We’ll know more tomorrow morning.”
It’s hard to imagine Abbott will play in tomorrow night’s championship game against Boston College.
That was the only blemish on a great night for Maine.
“I’m real proud of this group,” Whitehead said. “It was a tough matchup, right down to the wire. What I liked most was how we responded each time they scored, particularly in the third period after Nieto scored to even it up. We scored about three and a half minutes after that with Spencer off the ice, so that was a big goal.”
Meanwhile, BU coach Jack Parker’s team has been off-and-on for the last three weeks or so, and they picked a bad night to be off.
“I can’t describe how disappointed I was in my team’s effort tonight or lack of such,” Parker said. “We had a lot of key guys just disappear, I thought. We left Kieran out to dry a number of times. We gave up four power-play goals – one was an empty-netter – and they didn’t have to work for any of them. We turned it over and gave up opportunity after opportunity.
“We looked jumpy as heck. We looked like we were afraid to lose from the get-go. When you go out and try to not lose, you usually do.”
BU took the lead at 2:46 of the first period on a great individual effort by junior right wing Alex Chiasson. The puck was chipped up to him in the neutral zone and he broke into the Maine zone with a defender on either side of him. Ryan Hegarty swung his stick at Chiasson to no avail, as the Quebec native faked the shot and then beat Sullivan on a backhander for his 15th goal.
Four minutes later, Chris Connolly set up Wade Megan for a great attempt, but Sullivan stopped that one.
Then Sahir Gill had a great look in the slot, but was stopped by Sullivan again.
As the period wore on, Maine had the majority of the shots, possessing the puck well on a power play, but there wasn’t much of the grade ‘A’ nature. One exception was a terrific blind backhand pass by Abbott near the goal line, teeing it up for a great chance for Brian Flynn, but Millan thwarted Maine’s top two point-getters with the save at 16:08.
Maine scored in the opening minute of period two on a power play with Diamond getting it at the 46-second mark. The puck went in the crease and BU forward Ross Gaudet charged in attempting to break up the play. While Gaudet collided with his goalie, Diamond put the puck on his backhand and slid it in low.
“We ran our own goalie and put the puck in the net on the power play,” Parker observed.
BU freshman Cason Hohmann raced in on the right wing and hit the near post at six minutes even and Maine got called for a penalty on that rush. The ensuing goal came just eight seconds into power play. On the left side, BU fumbled the puck a bit and Maine’s defenders were lured over only to have Gill recover the puck and make a great cross to Nieto in the right wing circle, where he had a clear shot at the net from 15 feet out.
At 9:20, Maine left wing Adam Shemansky took a long wrist shot that went by Millan on the stick side, clanging off the inside of the post. It was close, and the officials went to video review. As expected, though, it was no goal.
O’Neill scored to tie it 2-2 at 11:22 on a terrific play by the defenseman. With a teammate picking a BU defender near the blue line, O’Neill stickhandled around the tangled pair deftly before firing a long, high shot into the net.
Maine got another chance seconds later, and its crowd started to really get into the game.
Maine got a great shorthanded chance five minutes later. Abbott got the puck and Alexx Privitera stumbled to give him a breakaway. Millan made the great save, but Privitera got called for the penalty as he tried to recover at 16:52.
That penalty was costly, as Maine capitalized on the power play to take its first lead of the night with 1:35 left in the period. Abbott raced in on the right wing and then scanned the zone for his options. He finally passed to O’Neill trailing the play, and the senior defenseman scored his second goal of the game – and just his third of the season – on a long shot from far outside.
BU tied it up several minutes into the third on the Abbott play that infuriated Maine’s fans. Behind the Maine net, Escobedo checked Abbott into the boards. Abbott slipped on the play and ended up getting crushed. As he lay injured on the ice, BU raced the other way on a three-on-two break, with Nieto finishing it.
Then Maine regained the lead at 7:43 on another power-play goal. On a brutal turnover, Mark Anthoine intercepted a BU clearing attempt and then wheeled to beat Millan high on the glove side.
“I was trying to pass to someone, but there was no one around,” Anthoine said.
“Shooting’s always the last resort,” Whitehead quipped.
Finally, BU mounted considerable pressure over the last four or five minutes. After pulling Millan, the Terriers dominated territorially, only to give up an empty-net chance that forced Adam Clendening to take a penalty. Millan again went to the bench despite being shorthanded and very nearly tied it in dramatic fashion with Chiasson and Garrett Noonan crashing the Maine net in a pile of bodies in the last half-minute. Maine survived that, and Diamond finally got the empty-netter to clinch it.
Maine (23-12-3) faces BC in search of a league championship on Saturday night, while BU must wait to see if they are a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. BU seemingly can finish anywhere from seventh to 12th in the PairWise rankings. Losses by Maine, Miami, and Denver would help BU. For the moment, Maine is sixth in the PairWise and might not slip much lower, even with a loss to BC.