DURHAM — Well, of course it ended with a tie. How else could such an unsettled season conclude, but with a resurgent University of Maine men’s hockey team rallying to take a late lead and ultimately denying its rival home-ice playoff advantage?
Maine and New Hampshire skated to a 4-4 overtime tie in a Hockey East matinee that began late Saturday afternoon with sunlight streaming through the upper corner windows of a Whittemore Center packed with a crowd of 6,501.
Because of television preferences, the game was moved from evening to afternoon, which meant both teams left the building without knowing their quarterfinal opponents in the upcoming Hockey East playoffs.
Maine headed north in a pleasant sort of limbo after earning three out of four points on the weekend and locking up a playoff berth. The Black Bears (11-17-8, 7-12-8 Hockey East) will be seeded eighth and will face No. 1 UMass-Lowell in a best-of-three quarterfinal series beginning Thursday.
“It really doesn’t matter,” said junior goalie Martin Ouellette of the playoff opponent, which wasn’t known until Lowell beat Providence 4-1 Saturday night. “We’re going to go out there and nothing’s going to stop us from taking the series. If we play like we played this weekend, we’ll go to the Garden.”
The TD Garden in Boston will play host to the Hockey East semifinals for the four teams advancing from the quarters.
New Hampshire (18-9-7, 13-8-6) left the ice in a lousy kind of limbo. Having entered the weekend with a chance to gain the top seed, the Wildcats lost 4-3 Friday night and blew a pair of two-goal leads Saturday, ultimately dropping them all the way to fifth seed. They will travel to No. 4 Providence.
“We knew this was going to be a good weekend of hockey,” said UNH Coach Dick Umile. “It always is when UNH and Maine play. I give them credit. It’s just disappointing.”
Needing a victory to clinch home ice, the Wildcats built a 2-0 lead heading into the final five minutes of the second period on fourth-line goals by Scott Pavelski and Maxim Gaudreault.
Joey Diamond got Maine on the scoreboard with the first of his two goals, cutting from right to left into the slot and unleashing a shot that trickled over the goal line after hitting goalie Casey DeSmith.
Less than a minute later, UNH went ahead 3-1 when Grayson Downing tipped in a shot by Austin Block. Again Maine answered, with Adam Shemansky deflecting a shot taken from near the blue line by Klas Leidermark to make it 3-2 entering the third.
“We knew coming in that it was going to be an emotional game,” said Maine senior defenseman Mike Cornell. “They were fired up with the way things ended (in pushing and shoving behind the Maine net and no handshake line Friday night) and it was their Senior Night, too. So sometimes you have to weather the storm. Fortunately, we stuck with it and stayed confident.”
Ben Hutton sprung Diamond on a breakaway early in the third, and Diamond buried his own rebound to make it 3-3. The Black Bears went ahead 4-3 when Brice O’Connor fired a shot through traffic that deflected off a defender and was put away by Will Merchant.
With Maine’s defensemen blocking shots (they took care of 24 Friday night and 15 Saturday) and Ouellette looking sharp in net, the lead appeared safe. At least it did until Maine incurred two penalties.
The Black Bears survived the first penalty, but it took New Hampshire only 40 seconds to score on the second one, on a screened slap shot from the blue line by Eric Knodel with 3:38 remaining in regulation.
Had the Black Bears held on for the win, they would have leapfrogged Vermont for the No. 7 seed and a matchup at No. 2 Boston College. Instead they’ll face Lowell, against whom they went 2-1 this season, with all three games decided by a goal.
After a dismal 2-11-2 start, Maine is 9-6-6 since Christmas – better than every other Hockey East team over that same period except Lowell (16-3-1 over its final 20 games).
“We’ve come a long way since the start of the year,” Whitehead said. “We’ve fought through a lot of injuries and a lot of close games like this and we just want to keep playing. … Because at this point, we think we can play with anybody.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: