ORONO — The University of Massachusetts is seeking a berth in the Hockey East playoffs.
The University of Maine is looking for its first home-ice berth in four years.
The Minutemen, in ninth place when the game started, played with more grit and urgency than the lethargic Black Bears over the first two periods, scoring the game’s first four goals en route to an impressive 5-2 triumph.
The Minutemen outworked Maine for loose pucks, attacked the Maine net and played thorough in-your-face defense en route to building its 4-0 lead.
Maine, which entered the third period trailing 4-1, played better in the third period, but it was too little, too late.
UMass snapped a six-game losing streak and improved to 17-16 overall, 12-14 in Hockey East. Maine fell to 16-14-3 and 13-11-2, respectively and had its Hockey East home-ice quarterfinal aspirations jeopardized since Boston University beat Northeastern and UMass Lowell beat Vermont.
Maine will enter tonight’s Seniors Night game needing a tie or a tie or loss by BU or UMass Lowell to sew up home ice for the first time in four years. Wins by UMass, BU and UMass Lowell would drop the Bears into fifth place. The Minutemen jumped into a three-way tie for seventh with Northeastern and Vermont. Only two of them will make the playoffs, so UMass has reason to play just as hard in tonight’s game at 7.
UMass, loser of six straight and eight of its last nine entering the game, scored more than four goals for the first time since a 6-2 victory over Vermont on Nov. 24.
The Minutemen had been 0-6-1 in their last seven visits to Orono, but T.J. Syner gave UMass a lead it would never relinquish just 52 seconds into the game.
Sophomore defenseman Matt Irwin scored a pair of second-period goals to up the lead to 3-0. Senior defenseman Justin Braun made it 4-0 at the 13:57 mark, which sent freshman goalie Shawn Sirman to the bench in favor of senior Dave Wilson.
Sophomore goalie Scott Darling was unavailable after violating team rules before the game, but he will be available tonight.
Spencer Abbott’s power-play goal at the 14:30 mark of the second period cut the UMass lead to 4-1 and Will O’Neill’s power-play goal 9:26 into the third period made things interesting.
But penalties assessed to Joey Diamond, Josh Van Dyk and Jeff Dimmen prevented the Black Bears from creeping any closer, and Brett Watson added an empty-net goal.
Coupled with a 4-2 loss to UMass Lowell on Feb. 20, it marks the first time this season that Maine has lost back-to-back home games.
“It was pretty embarrassing,” said Maine left winger Abbott. “We thought it was going to come easy and they’re obviously a good team.”
“The coaching staff was very disappointed with the effort tonight,” said Maine head coach Tim Whitehead. “UMass outworked us. They got to the net much better than we did. They played as a team and we played as individuals. We got what we deserved. We got a good butt-kicking.”
“UMass played a great game and we didn’t show up,” said Maine junior center Robby Dee.
UMass coach Don Cahoon said his team gave a “good effort, for sure” and called it one of his team’s better performances of the season.
However, he forbid the media from talking to his players, citing “issues” within his team for his decision.
Casey Wellman set up the game-opening goal by wheeling out of the corner into the slot and firing a wrister that Sirman saved with his blocker. But the rebound dropped down to the goalie’s right and Syner swatted it home from the edge of the crease.
Sirman stopped a Watson breakaway and UMass goalie Paul Dainton made a stick save on Adam Shemansky, who beat a UMass defenseman and broke in alone down the left slot.
Irwin expanded the lead 4:17 into the second period when he came out of the penalty box and drove to the net front and had Braun’s shot from the high slot deflect off his stick between Sirman’s pads.
Irwin made it 3-0 on the power play at the 11:00 mark when James Marcou fed him in the high slot and his snap shot beat Sirman.
“I got bumped on the play and didn’t see the puck,” said Sirman.
Braun extended the lead to 4-0 2:57 later when his slap shot from the top of the right circle snuck through Sirman’s pads.
“That was a bad goal,” said Sirman in absorbing the blame.
Abbott gave the Bears a little life when took a pass from Brian Flynn and then used Flynn as a screen to beat Dainton with a 20-foot wrister to the far post.
That extended Maine’s string of games with at least one power-play goal to 11.
O’Neill cut the lead to 4-2 with a screened slap shot from the midpoint.
But the Bears could get no closer.
Maine outshot UMass 27-24, but Dainton was required to make just eight Grade-A (high-percentage) saves. Sirman had 13 saves on 17 shots and Wilson stopped all six shots he faced.