WORCESTER, Mass. — It was a promising start.
But the University of Maine’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006-2007 was short-lived, as the defending national champion University of Minnesota-Duluth erased a 2-0 deficit with five unanswered goals to beat the Black Bears 5-2 at the DCU Center Saturday night.
Minnesota-Duluth advanced to Sunday night’s Northeast Regional final where it was beaten by Boston College 4-0. The Eagles gained a berth in the Frozen Four and will battle Minnesota in Tampa, Fla., on April 5.
Maine wound up 23-14-3.
Kenny Reiter finished with 25 saves for the winners while Dan Sullivan wound up with 21 for Maine.
“We got out of the gate very strong but Minnesota-Duluth did a great job bouncing back,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “They played a great game. They didn’t overreact when they got down.”
“We just couldn’t generate any chances after we scored our second goal,” said Maine senior center and co-captain Brian Flynn. “They did a great job in all aspects of the game defensively.”
Second-period goals 6:41 apart by Jack Connolly, Caleb Herbert and Jake Hendrickson gave the Bulldogs a lead they would never relinquish and J.T. Brown added a valuable insurance goal in the third period before Hendrickson scored an empty-netter.
University of Maine senior left wing and Hobey Baker Award finalist Spencer Abbott returned to the lineup in dramatic fashion by scoring the only goal in the first period.
Abbott suffered a concussion in a 5-3 Hockey East semifinal win over Boston University eight days ago and was finally cleared to play on Saturday afternoon.
Matt Mangene expanded the Maine lead with a strange second-period goal on a breakaway with the Maine net completely off its moorings and 15 feet away from Maine goalie Sullivan.
But the resilient Bulldogs didn’t let the flukey goal deter them.
Hobey Baker Award finalist Connolly scored on the power play at the 10:47 mark to give the lethargic Bulldogs momentum, Herbert tied it with an odd goal off the glass behind the net at the 16:28 mark and Hendrickson gave UMD its first lead one minute later.
UMD senior defenseman and assistant captain Brady Lamb said his team “showed a lot of character” after falling behind 2-0 on the strange goal by Mangene and that Connolly’s power-play goal was “huge for us.
“We got one and good things come in bunches,” said Lamb. “We tried to get pucks down low, work their defensemen and get more pucks to the net and it paid off for us.”
Connolly took a pass from Travis Oleksuk at the top of the right circle, maneuvered to his left and snapped a wrister that beat the screened Sullivan to the far post past his blocker.
“It was a great pass by Oleksuk, I got my head up, saw the goalie coming out and saw that [Joe] Basaraba was screening. So I put it to [the open spot], low side,” Connolly said.
“I didn’t see it until it was in the net,” said Sullivan.
Herbert tied it when he stole the puck from Brice O’Connor, broke in alone and took a shot from the low slot that glanced off Sullivan’s glove, hit the glass behind the net and dropped in behind the goalie before hitting his leg and rolling in.
“I thought it was going to drop down to my left,” said Sullivan. “That was a crazy bounce.”
“That’s one of the goofiest goals I’ve ever seen. But Herbert did a great job angling [O’Connor] and forcing the turnover,” Connolly said.
“I was trying to pass the puck up to the wing but he picked it off,” said O’Connor.
Sullivan took the blame for the third goal as he rimmed the puck along the left-wing boards only to see it wind up on the stick of Lamb, who didn’t have a Black Bear anywhere around him.
“All of their guys were on the other side and they flew a wing so I stepped up,” said Lamb, who was able to skate freely down the right seam and take a menacing snap shot from the right circle that Sullivan kicked out with his pad.
But Hendrickson was standing at the edge of the crease and he touched the puck around Sullivan and tapped it in.
“He had a quick set of hands. He maneuvered the puck around me and put it in,” said Sullivan. “He made a great move.
“But that goal was my fault. Ryan [Hegarty] was telling me to leave it for him [behind the net]. But he was under some pressure and when I first looked up, there wasn’t anybody on that side,” said Sullivan. “I thought I could get it out of the zone.”
The Bulldogs put on a defensive clinic in the third period, holding Maine to three shots on goal and just one Grade-A (high-percentage) shot on goal.
“I can’t remember a good scoring chance in the third period,” said Flynn.
The Bulldogs kept the puck in the Maine zone for most of the third period as they were able to protect the puck and cycle it with clinical precision to prevent Maine from generating rush chances.
Brown’s insurance goal came with 10:45 left in the game.
Hendrickson’s empty-net goal capped a memorable evening for him and linemates Basaraba and David Grun, who were responsible for checking Maine’s high-powered line of Abbott, Flynn and Joey Diamond. They limited the Black Bear stars to seven shots on goal and no even-strength goals.
“They played solid defensively. We had trouble getting the puck in their end,” said Abbott.
Abbott’s power play goal came with 2:44 left in the first period and his snap shot in the final seconds of the period nearly produced a second goal. However, Reiter extended his left pad and robbed an unattended Mangene, who got off a point-blank follow-up.
Abbott’s goal was set up by Flynn, who was in the left circle and slid the puck across to Abbott in the middle of the high slot.
Abbott faked a slap shot and then wristed the puck through a screen past Reiter.
Maine had the better chances in the first period and won a majority of the battles for the puck.
Maine outshot the Bulldogs 14-9 in the first period.
“It wasn’t hard to play better after the way we played in the first period,” said Lamb.
Flynn said even though Maine scored on its second power-play chance of the game, it had two more opportunities after that in the first and second periods “and it would have been nice if we could have gotten another one [to get some separation].”
Maine went 1-for-5 on the power play overall while UMD went 1-for-3.
Mangene made it 2-0 when he took a pass from Cornell and skated unchecked down the ice as the Bulldogs stopped playing because the Maine net was dislodged.
But the whistle never blew and Mangene capitalized by busting across the low slot from right to left and sliding a backhander behind Reiter.
According to rule 6-10c, if the nonoffending team has an offensive opportunity and its defensive goal cage has been displaced, play shall be allowed to continue until the scoring chance is completed.
Maine senior defenseman and co-captain Will O’Neill had assists on both goals and became the seventh defenseman in Maine history to reach the 100-point plateau. He wound up with 101 points.