By Glenn Jordan
ORONO — Connor Leen tried to pretend Alfond Arena was someplace strange instead of the University of Maine’s home ice.
“On the road, we’ve been a lot better,” said the sophomore forward. “Here, I guess the crowd gets in our heads. Maybe we’re gripping the sticks a little tight. It’s been tough for us here.”
The Black Bears continued their Alfond anguish Saturday night, losing 5-2 to a Mercyhurst University squad they had defeated 2-1 the night before in Portland’s Cumberland County Civic Center.
A crowd of 3,530 at Alfond saw the Black Bears take an early lead, rally to tie early in the third period, then give up two empty-net goals in the final two minutes to end a three-game winning streak, their best stretch of the season.
Maine (5-12-2 overall, 1-7-2 Hockey East) has played nine games at Alfond, with two ties and seven losses to show for it. Mercyhurst, an Atlantic Hockey team from Erie, Pa., that had never before beaten Maine, is 9-7-1.
“I actually thought we played better (Friday) night,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin, whose goaltender Max Strang made 15 saves in a busy first period, which ended in a 1-1 tie thanks to a Lakers goal with 14 seconds remaining.
“Strang was clearly the different,” Gotkin said. “It could have been four or five to nothing, Maine, in the first.”
Mercyhurst carried the play in the second and took a 2-1 lead into the third. Maine tied it 2-2 on a Kyle Beattie rebound goal after Leen had tipped a power-play snapshot from the right point by Mike Cornell.
The game-winner came on a Mercyhurst power play with a little less than 10 minutes remaining after Joey Diamond – Maine’s career leader in penalty minutes – was called for goaltender interference.
Chris Bodo scored the winner on a perfect feed from the corner for a 3-2 lead after the Lakers had zinged the puck around the offensive zone.
“That was just a beautiful play,” Gotkin said. “We don’t score too many like that.”
Daniel O’Donoghue, who had scored the only goal of the second period to put Mercyhurst on top 2-1, scored a pair of empty-netters in the final 100 seconds to finish with a hat trick.
The final four minutes included a series of roughing penalties that gave Maine a one-skater advantage for the final 1:43. Coach Tim Whitehead elected to pull goalie Matt Morris for an extra attacker, but Mercyhurst won the ensuing face-off and O’Donoghue scored on a shot from just outside the blue line. He added another long-distance goal with 22 seconds left.
The end was much different from the start.
After starting slowly Friday night in a 2-1 victory in Portland, the Black Bears ignored the rows of empty seats in the Alfond student section because of the semester break and put all kinds of pressure on Strang.
They attempted 33 shots in the opening period, 16 of them on target. Shortly after Kyle Beattie hit the post, freshman Devin Shore slid a pass to Brice O’Connor near the left post. Strang blocked
O’Connor’s shot, but Leen swooped in and tapped home the rebound for his team-leading fifth goal of the season.
Although Maine continued to pepper Strang with shots, including a short-handed breakaway by Will Merchant set up by Jon Swavely during a Mercyhurst line change, the Black Bears failed to pad their lead.
“Not being able to extend the lead in the first period with all those glorious chances ended up being the difference,” Whitehead said. “We’re working to develop our scoring and it’s coming. When you generate that many chances, obviously some guys made some good plays.”
Mercyhurst managed to tie the score in the period’s final 15 seconds, when Paul Chiasson passed from the corner to O’Donoghue in front, but a Maine defender lifted his stick.
“It hit the defenseman’s stick and wound up going right over the goalie’s shoulder,” O’Donoghue said. “He wasn’t expecting it.”
Morris, a freshman, finished with 28 saves in his second start of the season. Strang made 43.
The Black Bears return to action Friday night at Northeastern as the rest of their schedule features all Hockey East opponents.
“It’s disappointing,” Whitehead said. “We’ve been looking at four-game blocks. We took three steps forward, and took a step back.
“Now we have another four-game block and we feel we’re a stronger team now than we were last time we jumped into Hockey East play.”
Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: