AMHERST, Mass. – It looks like the race for the final playoff spot in Hockey East may go to the wire.
The University of Maine dropped out of the top eight spots Saturday with a 5-2 loss to Massachusetts before 3,127 at the Mullins Center.
It came a day after the Black Bears moved past UMass into eighth place with a 2-0 victory over the Minutemen.
But Saturday night, Zach LaRue snapped a tie at 2:55 of the third period to end the Minutemen’s five-game losing streak. Conor Sheary and Kevin Czepiel (empty net) also scored in the third period of a game filled with momentum swings.
“We’re disappointed with the result,” Maine Coach Tim Whitehead said. “They carried the first period, we certainly carried the second and they surged back in the third.”
It may have been too much to ask goaltender Martin Ouellette (22 saves) to duplicate his sensational effort from the night before. Ouellette made 30 saves, including several spectacular ones, to key Friday’s win.
The Black Bears, who are depleted by injuries, were hurt by a couple defensive breakdowns that led to UMass going up 2-0.
Ouellette could not be faulted on either goal. The Minutemen played like a desperate team.
“We gave them too many power plays,” Whitehead said. “They didn’t score on them but it took a lot out of us.”
Desperate is the way the Black Bears must respond following the split. With four games remaining, Maine, UMass and Northeastern all remain in the hunt for the final playoff spot.
“Every game is a must-win game,” declared UMass Coach John Micheletto.
That may be a shop-worn cliche, but no one need remind the Black Bears that there will be little margin for error the rest of the way.
Maine will be home against Northeastern on Friday and Saturday. The Black Bears finish on the road with a pair of games against New Hampshire.
“I imagine it will come down to the last night,” Whitehead said. “Everyone’s playing hard and competing well.”
Getting healthy would help. The entire first line of Joey Diamond, Connor Leen and Kyle Beattie missed the UMass games, as did defenseman Nick Pryor.
Their absence has caused Maine to struggle offensively, managing only four goals in the two games against UMass.
“We won’t use that as an excuse,” Whitehead said. “We had an opportunity and UMass just did a great job.”
The Black Bears rallied in the second period as Jake Rutt and Bill Norman scored in a span of 1:40 to tie the game.
Norman received a pass from Andrew Cerretani on the right side and powered a slap shot past Steve Mastalerz for the equalizer.
Rutt scored on a power play at 5:36. He was set up by Devin Shore and fired a wrist shot past Mastalerz.
Adam Phillips opened the scoring at 5:51. After Ouellette stopped a shot by Rocco Carzo, Phillips converted the rebound.
Branden Gracel provided UMass with a 2-0 lead. He scored on a two-on-one break at 7:47 of the first period.