The Border Wars. Mayhem in Manchester. The Battle for First Place.
Call it what you will, but the much-ballyhooed meeting between New Hampshire and Maine in front of 10,104 at the Verizon Wireless Arena lived up to its billing.
The two Northern rivals see-sawed back and forth on the scoreboard until Lanny Gare scored his second goal of the game late in the third period to ice a 4-2 UNH win. The victory moves New Hampshire (18-5-3, 12-3-1 HEA) into a tie for first place with Boston College with an additional game in hand. Maine (20-3-4, 10-2-3 HEA) falls into third place, but still holds a game in hand over UNH and two over BC.
The two rivals complete their two-game set with a more conventional UNH home game at the Whittemore Center on Sunday night, a contest that will be broadcast by Fox Sports New England.
“It was billed up to be a great game and it was,” UNH coach Dick Umile said. “The whole thing was fabulous. It was one of our better games. Tonight we played for 60 minutes. The guys played extremely well.”
Maine coach Tim Whitehead conceded that his team was outplayed and outsmarted.
“UNH deserved that one,” he said. “They had that extra oomph in the battles and an extra step on the loose pucks.
“We have to play a little smarter. We have to pick up our assignments on the faceoffs. Two faceoff goals really were the difference in the game. [We’ve got to] protect the front of our net. They got to the front of our net too many times. Really, that’s the bottom line.”
An undercard of sorts in the battle between the two top-ranked teams in Hockey East was the matchup between the league’s top two statistically-ranked goaltenders. UNH’s Mike Ayers, fresh off setting a school record with five shutouts this season, stopped 31 shots in the win. Although Jimmy Howard allowed four goals for the first time this year, he made 34 saves and was hardly the cause of Maine’s downfall.
“Jimmy played great,” Whitehead said. “If we’d picked up our men and been more assertive, they wouldn’t have had those opportunities. Jimmy is a tremendous goalie… [but 38] shots is too many shots even for a great team like UNH.”
In commenting on his play, Howard inadvertently tipped Maine’s hand regarding the usually secret identity of the team’s goaltender. He and Frank Doyle have rotated this year, but in recent weeks Howard has outperformed his fellow tandem member, prompting speculation that he would play both games in the series this weekend.
“You know, goals go in,” he said. “What makes you know how good a goalie is, is how he bounces back the next night. So maybe I will tomorrow night.”
With the atmosphere charged at the Verizon Wireless Arena, UNH and Maine opened with the solid, fundamental hockey that befitted the number one and five teams in the country. Although the two clubs combined for 28 shots in the first period with UNH holding a 17-11 advantage, neither goaltender was peppered with grade A chances.
After both teams failed to capitalize on power plays, the Wildcats took the lead on a faceoff goal at 15:26. Gare won the draw cleanly and after the puck moved to Mike Lubesnick at the right point, the defenseman fired and Gare, who had charged the net, redirected the shot past Howard.
The second period opened up considerably with the rivals both scoring twice in see-saw fashion. Maine evened the score on the power play at 7:02. Lucas Lawson shot along the ice from the right point past Ayers, who never saw it having been screened by his own defenseman.
Nathan Martz grabbed the lead back for UNH at 9:42, cutting across the slot and firing through a Sean Collins screen.
The Wildcats held that 2-1 lead until Maine’s Greg Moore deadlocked the game again with two minutes left in the period. The freshman came out from the right boards and put a backhander on net from the slot. Ayers couldn’t control the rebound and Moore, who had followed his shot to the net, flipped the puck into the top of the net.
A minute and a half later, however, UNH took back the lead for good on a play that showed Collins at his sniper-like best. Maine won a faceoff, but two Black Bears allowed Steve Saviano to strip away the puck and get it to his linemate who ripped a shot into the top right corner.
In the third period, Collins played the part of playmaker, but couldn’t get his recipients to finish off their chances and, in all likelihood, the Black Bears. While shorthanded, he broke with Garrett Stafford two-on-one and tried to get it to the defenseman on the weak side, but the two did not connect.
Five minutes later, Collins broke with Colin Hemingway two-on-none and fed the senior beautifully at the far post. This time Howard showed why he’s statistically the top goalie in the country, making a spectacular pad save.
An ineffective UNH power play with eight minutes remaining failed to put the game away and actually allowed a Marty Kariya and Todd Jackson two-on-one. The lone defender, Tyson Teplitsky, defended it perfectly, however, and Kariya could only muster a modest shot.
The back and forth continued with Ayers forced to make 11 saves. Maine’s Ben Murphy fed Cameron Lyall perfectly on the far post, but the freshman couldn’t convert.
Gare iced the game, though, with 3:05 remaining, cutting right-to-left across the front of the crease and, with a defender on his back, proved that fans who scream for their heroes to “just shoot it” don’t know what they’re talking about. Showing great patience, he waited out Howard and roofed it for his second goal of the night and the game-clincher.