DURHAM — It wasn’t easy. Not for a team that won only twice at home all season, and won only twice in its first 15 games.
Still, the University of Maine survived a last-ditch rally to hold off New Hampshire 4-3 Friday night and secured a berth in the Hockey East playoffs.
The victory, coupled with an overtime loss by UMass against Merrimack, gave Maine a three-point lead for eighth place with just one game remaining.
A sellout crowd of 6,501 at the Whittemore Center saw the Black Bears take a 1-0 lead into the third period, then withstand a wild final 11 minutes that included six goals, the last two with New Hampshire’s net empty in favor of an extra skater.
“It was a little crazy at the end, but we got the win and that’s what matters,” said Maine goalie Martin Ouellette, who made 18 of his 31 saves in the final period, and by a foot missed scoring a rink-length goal when Maine led 4-2 in the final minute.
“The guys played unreal in front of me. They stuck to the system. They blocked shots. They cleared rebounds.”
The Black Bears (11-17-7, 7-17-7 Hockey East) can finish no lower than eighth. Heading into Saturday afternoon’s regular-season finale, they trail Vermont – which tied Boston College 4-4 – by one point for seventh place.
A Maine victory and a Vermont loss Saturday would bump the Black Bears into seventh place, but with only two points separating the top five teams in the standings, it matters little.
“We’re just happy to be in,” said senior defenseman Mike Cornell, who scored from the right point 23 seconds after New Hampshire had pulled within 2-1 on a goal that deflected past Ouellette off a Wildcat skate and was upheld after a lengthy video review. “A lot of people counted us out all year and we can’t fault them. We definitely made (things) pretty difficult for ourselves. But to our team’s credit, we never lost faith.”
Nineteen seconds after Cornell’s goal, senior Kyle Beattie’s wraparound goal gave Maine a seemingly safe 4-1 lead with just under six minutes remaining. Beattie, who returned last weekend after missing significant time because of his third concussion of the season, had given Maine a 2-0 lead midway through a third period that had been dominated in the early going by New Hampshire.
When Beattie was called for hooking with three minutes left, however, New Hampshire pulled goalie Casey DeSmith for a six-on-four advantage. The strategy paid off with an Eric Knodel goal with1:13 remaining.
Austin Block made it 4-3 with 23 seconds left when he batted the puck out of the air during a scrum in front of Ouellette.
The game ended with another scrum, this time behind the Maine net, which toppled over as Maine’s Joey Diamond and New Hampshire’s Grayson Downing became entangled.
Boos rained down from the Whittemore stands afterward as the Black Bears skated off the ice instead of going to the traditional handshake line at center ice.
Maine Coach Tim Whitehead said that was a misunderstanding; his players thought the referee had told them to leave the ice when in fact he said, “Peel off.”
The victory ended a nine-game losing streak for Maine at the Whittemore Center.
“It’s always a hard-fought game when these two teams get together,” Whitehead said.
The Black Bears took a 1-0 lead shortly after the game’s first penalty, on Maine’s Brice O’Connor. On the UNH power play, Maine defenseman Mark Nemec blocked a slap shot and nudged the puck to Devin Shore, who skated around two Wildcats and headed for the far corner of the rink, ostensibly to kill time.
Instead, as three Wildcats approached him, Shore spun around and spotted fellow freshman Steven Swavely streaking toward the slot on the opposite side of the wide rink. Shore zipped a pass to the top of the left circle, and Swavely snapped a shot past DeSmith, who finished with 20 saves.
It was the sixth short-handed goal of the season for Maine, and the sixth of any kind for Swavely.
A scoreless second period included an unsuccessful power play for each team as well as golden scoring opportunities for New Hampshire’s Block and Maine’s Will Merchant. Block took a feed from behind the net and shot unobstructed from seven feet away, but a lunging Ouellette took the shot in his chest. Later in the period, Merchant clanged the far post on a shot from the right dot.
NOTES: Sophomore Stu Higgins was not in uniform. He served a one-game suspension for violation of team rules dealing with academics. … Maine entered the game with a much-improved power play, scoring 12 times in 44 chances during its previous nine games. The Black Bears were 0 for 3 Friday night.
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: