AMHERST, Mass. — The University of Maine men’s hockey team’s aspirations to make the Hockey East playoffs suffered a blow Saturday night.
Sophomore left wing Zack LaRue’s goal 2:55 into the third period snapped a 2-2 tie and the University of Massachusetts snapped a five-game losing streak with a 5-2 win over the Black Bears at the Mullins Center.
Maine had won Friday night’s game 2-0.
“It’s so frustrating. Every point is so huge,” said Maine senior defenseman and tri-captain Mike Cornell. “We’ve had a roller-coaster season. We took a step forward [Friday night] but took another step back tonight.
“We didn’t manage the puck well. We had a lot of turnovers. They came out strong, they played physical and won loose pucks and we weren’t ready for it,” said Cornell. “It wasn’t a great performance. It wasn’t an effort issue. Everybody was trying. We just didn’t execute. UMass was a different team than they were on Friday. You’ve got to give them credit. They played well. And we shot ourselves in the foot.”
Cornell and Maine coach Tim Whitehead said third-period penalties proved to be costly as freshmen Devin Shore (holding the stick), Ryan Lomberg (slashing) and Kyle Williams (roughing) gave the Minutemen power-play chances and limited the Black Bears’ scoring opportunities.
“They were freshman mistakes,” said Whitehead. “None of the penalties was blatant. They might not have been called earlier in the game. But the referees hadn’t called any penalties on us through two periods so you can’t give them a reason to do so in the third period because they will be looking to call something. You’ve got to play squeaky clean.
“I thought we played pretty well. We blocked a lot of shots and [Martin Ouellette] was solid,” Whitehead added.
UMass, playing its fifth game in eight days, improved to 11-17-2 overall and 8-14-1 in Hockey East while moving one point ahead of Maine (9-17-6, 5-12-6) in the battle for the eighth and final Hockey East playoff berth.
Seventh-place Vermont, which earned a 1-1 tie with New Hampshire Saturday afternoon, is two points ahead of UMass and three ahead of Maine.
Northeastern, which will invade Alfond Arena for a pair of games with Maine next weekend, is three points behind the Black Bears.
Vermont owns the tiebreaker against Maine because the Catamounts went 2-0-1 against the Black Bears and UMass would win the tie-breaker because it has eight league wins to Maine’s five. UMass and Maine went 1-1-1 against each other and head-to-head is the first tie-breaker with league wins being the second.
After hosting Northeastern, Maine will visit New Hampshire for a Friday night (7:30)-Saturday afternoon (4 p.m.) series on March 8-9.
UMass visits UNH for a pair next weekend before closing out with a home-and-home series with Merrimack; UVM visits Boston University for two next weekend before entertaining Boston College for a pair and Northeastern, after its trip to Orono, will finish up with a home-and-home against Boston University.
First-period goals 1:56 apart by Adam Phillips and Branden Gracel staked UMass to a 2-0 lead but Maine drew level on goals 1:40 apart in the second period by Jake Rutt (power play) and Billy Norman.
But LaRue broke the deadlock four seconds after Maine’s Shore came out of the penalty box for a holding-the-stick infraction when he jammed at a loose puck off a Gracel rebound and stuffed it under Maine goalie Ouellette.
“It was under my pad, [LaRue] took a couple of whacks at it and it slid behind me and went in,” said Ouellette who thought the referees should have blown the whistle and stopped play which is what they are supposed to do if they lose sight of the puck.
“I didn’t think the puck was visible,” said Ouellette.
“That was a tough call,” Whitehead said.
Conor Sheary added an insurance goal with 6:25 left when he one-timed a cross-ice pass from Joel Hanley past Ouellette after Hanley had busted around a pair of Black Bears.
“I thought [Hanley] was going to shoot it but he made the pass across to the weak side and [Sheary] one-timed it in,” said Ouellette.
Kevin Czepiel added an empty-net goal.
Phillips opened the scoring at the 5:51 mark by tucking home a rebound and Gracel extended the lead with a slap shot from the left circle.
Rutt made it 2-1 at the 5:36 mark of the second period with a wrist shot from the left circle and Norman tied by wheeling out of the corner and cleanly beating Steve Mastalerz with a wrister from the right side.
Mastalerz finished with 23 saves while Ouellette wound up with 22.
Maine was without leading scorer Joey Diamond (back), third-leading point-getter Connor Leen (Crohn’s disease), Kyle Beattie (concussion) and senior defenseman Nick Pryor (concussion).