Lucas Lawson scored the game-winner with six seconds remaining in overtime as top-ranked Maine escaped No. 5 New Hampshire with a 3-2 win in front of a rowdy and thunderous 6,501 at the Whittemore Center Sunday evening.
“It was really exciting; I thought both teams played fantastic,” commented Maine head coach Tim Whitehead. “It was a hard-fought game, and it had a little bit of everything. A little glass-breaking, some fist-throwing, and overtime.”
The Black Bear win makes the logjam at the top of the Hockey East standings even more interesting. Maine (11-2-3), New Hampshire (12-4-1), and Boston College (12-4-1) are all tied for first place in the league with 25 points, with Maine holding a game in hand on both teams with a month remaining in the regular season.
Maine takes the season series with UNH 2-1 with the win, and the Black Bears will host sixth-ranked Boston College on Friday in the final meeting between the two teams, after Maine went 1-0-1 against the Eagles in December in Chestnut Hill.
Both teams used their early opportunities wisely, as each squad scored on its first shot of the evening.
The Wildcats picked up where they left off from the night before, scoring just 1:12 into the first frame. Colin Hemingway collected a loose puck in the Maine zone along the right side and fed it to linemate Lanny Gare in the slot. Gare used the opportunity to pick up his team-leading 17th goal of the season, as he banged the puck off the post for a 1-0 New Hampshire lead.
Maine kept pace, tying the game only a few minutes later. Martin Kariya carried the puck into the UNH zone from the left side on a 2-on-1 opportunity, sending the puck across the slot to Derek Damon. Damon’s shot along the ice beat UNH netminder Mike Ayers before he could close the five-hole, knotting the game at one at 3:56.
Kariya’s assist was the 98th of his career through 145 games.
New Hampshire used a strong forecheck to frustrate the Maine defense in its own zone.
Although the Wildcat skaters created many turnovers and opportunities down low, great goaltending and a little luck for Maine netminder Jimmy Howard kept the game tied midway through the first.
The Black Bears took the lead just before entering the first intermission. Colin Shields collected a loose puck in his own zone and broke up ice with only one UNH defender to beat. Shields was unable to fire a shot on net, but found a way to feed the puck into the slot from the right corner for Tom Reimann.
Ayers made the initial save on Reimann, but he could not control the rebound, and Reimann stuffed the puck into the net at 19:54 to give Maine a 2-1 lead at the first break. The Wildcats outshot the Black Bears in the period 12-7.
The second period saw both teams generate quality scoring opportunities but come up with no goals. The Wildcats’ best opportunity came early, with Hemingway all alone down low with the puck. Before he could get a shot off, Howard pounced on the puck to prevent any chance of the puck going past him.
Chris Heisten looked primed to put the Black Bears up by two with under eight minutes left in the frame. With Maine on the power play, Heisten fired a shot from the slot and then collected the rebound for a second opportunity. Heisten made the right decision to go high with Ayers down, but a spectacular leg pad save by Ayers from his back kept the game at 2-1 entering the second break.
New Hampshire kept the pressure high in the third, looking for the equalizer. The only thing besides Howard that had the ability to stop the Wildcat momentum was when Tyler Scott checked Maine’s Travis Wight through the glass in the Black Bear zone at 10:24.
The Wildcats brought the crowd to life at 13:52 when they tied the game at two. After another spectacular save by Ayers, the UNH defense was able to send the puck up ice to Josh Prudden. Prudden broke away from a Maine defender and skated into the Black Bear zone unobstructed, squeezing the puck past Howard on the power play.
The game went into overtime, and although New Hampshire looked to have the momentum, Lawson chipped in the game’s final goal at 4:54 of overtime when the puck bounced into the net off his skate.
“We were just trying to get it on net in overtime — our coaches were really stressing that,” said Lawson. “I was just trying to get to the net, and somehow the puck found the back of the net.”
Howard made 35 saves in his 13th win of the season, while Ayers stopped 29 shots for the Wildcats. UNH scored the game’s only power-play goal, going 1-for-5, while the Black Bears were 0-for-5 with the man advantage.
“I fed off the noise, actually,” remarked Howard on the Whittemore fans, who were all handed thundersticks before the game. “I loved it when they were yelling at me. It just makes me play even harder.”
“It’s disappointing, obviously. We played very well, but we just couldn’t come away with the win,” said UNH coach Dick Umile.
Friday Maine (21-3-4, 11-2-3 HE) returns home to take on Boston College, while New Hampshire (18-6-3, 12-4-1 HE) will travel to Providence on Sunday.