DURHAM, N.H. — When New Hampshire star forward Tyler Kelleher skated onto the ice for the pre-game warmup, he did a double take. The Wildcats emerge from the Zamboni entrance and face the student section at the far end, but as Kelleher skated around on this night, he saw a second student section filling the opposite end.

The entire sold out, raucous arena was filled with fans decked out in white UNH jerseys for “White Out the Whitt” night.

This was no typical night. This was UNH and Maine. One of the most storied rivalries in college hockey.

“When the schedule comes out in the summer, it is the first thing you look for,” Kelleher said following the 5-1 win, triggered in large part by his two goals. “Everyone looks forward to it. It’s the most exciting weekend of the year, for sure.”

Defenseman Cameron Marks, who added his first goal of the year, seconded that emotion, while still keeping an eye on the Saturday night rematch in Orono, Maine.

“It’s definitely a game you circle,” he said. “It’s always a huge rivalry and beating them here feels so good. If we can beat them tomorrow there at their rink, it will feel even better.”

Arguably, it’s a rivalry that has fueled the long-term strength of both programs, one that reached its pinnacle in the 1999 national championship game, a titanic overtime struggle that could have gone either way before breaking hearts all across the Granite State while sending Black Bear fans into a state of euphoria.

The two programs have spent the vast majority of the last few decades as college hockey powerhouses. And Kelleher’s second goal, the game-winner and a highlight reel beauty, reminded this writer of Kris Kolanos’s overtime goal for Boston College in the 2001 national championship game.

But the hard reality is that these two teams are prohibitive longshots to be facing each other in Chicago in April.

The last two years, New Hampshire and Maine haven’t just been neighbors in geography. They’ve been neighbors in the Hockey East standings, and unfortunately, that neighborhood has been closer to the outhouse than the penthouse.

Two years ago, UNH finished eighth and Maine followed right behind in ninth. Last season, it was more of the same, only further down two positions, 10th and 11th. And this year’s preseason coaches’ poll pegged them for even more: New Hampshire in 10th and Maine in 12th, the cellar.

It’s been a fall from grace for two proud programs that not long ago were considered half of Hockey East’s Big Four along with fellow perennial powerhouses Boston College and Boston University.  It’s been a brief fall, presumably soon to be corrected, but a fall from grace nonetheless.

But you’d have had a hard time convincing the sellout crowd at the Whittemore Center. The two programs have taken a few lumps recently but this was still…

UNH vs. Maine

And that means magic.

The students bounced up and down during the pregame, chanting, “We believe in UNH” over and over. And by the end of the game, a 2-1 tightrope after two periods and not fully decided until Marks’s final nail in the coffin with five minutes to play, they were joyously chanting, “This is our house,” and of course, “Warm up the bus.”

“You can forget the records when you play this game,” UNH coach Dick Umile said. “This is as good a crowd as we’ve had of late. It’s a great hockey atmosphere, UNH-Maine. We both have been a little quiet [in wins and losses] the last couple years, but if you just look at the atmosphere and the hockey that’s played out there, it’s tremendous. There’s nothing like it.”

And as much as Maine faced a hostile Whittemore Center crowd on this evening, Umile knows his players will be facing every bit the same challenge 24 hours later at Alfond Arena.

“It will be crazy tomorrow night,” he said. “It’ll be fun. These are the games you want to play.”


Other Hockey East games

Massachusetts 5, No. 12 Notre Dame 4

UMass jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, then hung on for the nailbiting win. Though only UMass’s second win in its last 10, the victory marks its second straight impressive performance against a nationally ranked team, following a 2-2 tie with No. 19 St. Lawrence.

No. 6 Boston University 2, Providence 1

BU freshman Jake Oettinger stopped 38-of-39 shots, including 16 in the third period, to lead the Terriers to a 3-1-1 Hockey East record. Providence fell to a surprising 1-4-1 mark within the league.

Connecticut 3, No. 4 Massachusetts-Lowell 2

Freshman Colin O’Neil scored his first two career goals to lead UConn to the upset. The Huskies scored first in what became a see-saw game that saw them have to retake the lead two more times after Lowell tied it up. UConn’s Adam Huska made 31 saves for the win.