UM-UNH hockey a top rivalry

Posted Feb. 02, 2010, at 10:05 p.m.

On Dec. 15, 1979, John Tortorella scored the game-winner and Jeff Nord made 26 saves as the University of Maine Black Bear hockey team upended the University of New Hampshire 5-3 at Alfond Arena.

That was the first game in what has become one of the nation’s better rivalries.

It reached a new level on April 3, 1999, when the two teams met in, of all places, Anaheim, Calif., for the NCAA championship.

Maine took a 2-0 lead and current Maine assistant coach Dan Kerluke seemingly sewed up the win with a third goal. However, it was waved off due to Jason Vitorino’s skate being in the crease.

Energized by the call, UNH tied it and had a glorious chance to win it only to have the knob of Alfie Michaud’s goal stick get in the way in the waning moments of regulation.

That set the stage for Marcus Gustafsson’s overtime game-winner off his own rebound following a Cory Larose feed.

The game will go down as one of the best finals of all time.

Over the years, each team has had a stretch of dominance.

Maine had a 23-1-1 stretch from 1986 to 1994. UNH has won seven of the last eight entering this weekend’s two-game series in Orono to narrow Maine’s series lead to 54-45-5.

UNH is in the midst of a remarkable string of 13 consecutive 20-win seasons and the Wildcats have made eight straight NCAA Tournament trips, the second-longest active streak.

Maine had nine straight 20-win seasons and NCAA tournament appearances until back-to-back, 13-win seasons the last two years.

The programs provide an intriguing contrast and both sets of fans have their own bragging rights and snubs directed toward their rivals.

Maine fans refer to UNH as the University of No Hardware.

That’s because UNH hasn’t won a national championship in seven Frozen Four appearances and two title-game berths.

Maine has won two national championships, played in five title games and been to 11 Frozen Fours.

UNH has had its problems in the NCAA tournament, going 13-23 including an 11-15 record since the inception of Hockey East in 1984-85.

Maine is 30-19 in the NCAA tourney, all since the inception of Hockey East.

But UNH fans are quick to poke fun at Maine’s recent woes, which their team has managed to avoid.

During UNH’s 5-2 win over Maine on Oct. 24, a sign read “Welcome Orono Youth Hockey Program.”

UNH moved out of cozy Snively Arena into the spacious, Olympic-sized Whittemore Center in 1995 and has built its teams on speed and skill to take advantage of the 200×100-foot ice surface.

Maine plays at 200×85 Alfond Arena, which was built in 1976, so it has integrated big, physical players into its mix of speed and skill in order to win puck battles in the corners.

Both programs have rabid and loyal fans who travel well to Hockey East and NCAA tournaments.

Both programs recruit players from all across North America, although Maine has three Swedes this season.

UNH has averaged 99.8 percent capacity at its home games this season compared to Maine’s 81.6 percent.

The coaching styles of UNH’s Dick Umile and Maine’s Tim Whitehead are a contrast.

Umile is animated and emotional while Whitehead’s intensity is masked by a calmer, businesslike demeanor.

As always, this weekend’s series should be a dandy.

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