WORCESTER, Mass. – The University of Maine hockey team learned a harsh lesson Saturday night: when you play the defending champ, there is little margin of error.

For nearly two periods, the Black Bears had all the momentum in their Northeast Regional semifinal against defending NCAA champ Minnesota-Duluth. Then …

Two giveaways in Maine’s defensive end late in the second period led to two goals. A 2-1 lead evaporated, the early bluster was gone, and Maine’s comeback season was over.

In the end, Minnesota-Duluth eliminated the Black Bears 5-2 at the DCU Center, scoring five unanswered goals. Once in the lead, the Bulldogs’ defense clamped down and allowed only three shots in the final 20 minutes.

“They kept on us and we couldn’t get into the (offensive) zone,” said senior forward Spencer Abbott, whose return from a concussion sparked Maine’s early surge. “And there’s not much you can do when you can’t get into their zone.”

Maine, making its first NCAA appearance since 2007, finished the season 23-14-3.

“I don’t feel so good,” said senior defenseman Will O’Neill. “This is the end of the four best years of my life.”

Minnesota-Duluth (25-9-6) will play Hockey East champ and the region’s top seed, Boston College, at 8 p.m. today, the winner advancing to the Frozen Four on April 5 in Tampa, Fla.

Sparked by the return of Abbott, who got hurt in the Hockey East semifinals and found out an hour before the game that he was cleared to play, Maine jumped all over the Bulldogs.

Abbott’s power-play goal at 17:16 of the first period and Matt Mangene’s breakaway goal at 7:10 of the second gave the Black Bears a 2-0 lead. But Duluth got one back on a power-play goal by Jack Connolly with 9:13 left in the second, and then seized control in a 60-second span about six minutes later. That’s when mistakes caught up with the Black Bears.

Duluth’s Caleb Herbert stole the puck from Brice O’Connor at the Maine blue line and went in alone. His shot was over the net but ricocheted off the glass toward the net, hitting Maine goalie Dan Sullivan’s right skate and rolling into the net. It was suddenly tied at 2 with 3:32 left in the second.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that,” said Maine Coach Tim Whitehead. “I’m sure it’s happened but I hadn’t seen it. They seized the momentum and then got a quick one after that.”

It came a minute later.

This time Sullivan played the puck behind the net, sending it up the left defensive boards. Duluth defenseman Brady Lamb intercepted the pass and shot on net. Sullivan made the save but Jake Hendrickson was uncovered at the right post and stuffed the rebound in to give Minnesota-Duluth a 3-2 lead.

Whitehead said the Black Bears still felt in good position, but Duluth’s defense never let Maine get close.

“It was their whole team,” said senior forward Brian Flynn. “I can’t even remember one good quality shot we had.”

So Maine’s season ended, a little short of its goal but a little better than the last couple of years.

“This was the next step,” said Whitehead. “We didn’t get ultimately where we wanted. We wanted the Hockey East championship and the NCAA championship. But there’s no doubt these guys put us back on the map.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

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Twitter: MikeLowePPH