LOWELL, Mass — The University of Maine’s eighth-seeded Black Bear hockey team reduced Thursday night’s Hockey East best-of-three playoff series opener against top seed UMass Lowell into a one-period game as the teams were tied 1-1 after the first 40 minutes.
But the league regular-season champions erupted for three goals in the first 6:29 of the third period and went on to post a 4-2 victory at the Tsongas Arena.
UMass Lowell, 23-10-2 overall, will look to finish off the 11-18-8 Black Bears at 7 p.m. Friday.
If Maine wins, a third and deciding game will be Sunday at 4 p.m.
Sophomore left wing Scott Wilson’s second goal of the game and 14th of the season, coming in a four-on-four situation, gave the River Hawks the lead for good 1:52 into the final period and junior center Joseph Pendenza expanded the lead just 21 seconds later.
Josh Holmstrom’s power-play goal at the 6:29 mark made it 4-1.
Maine’s Devin Shore scored a pretty consolation goal on the power play with 48 seconds left as he went coast-to-coast and tucked the puck behind Connor Hellebuyck.
But it was too little, too late.
Hellebuyck finished with 24 saves while Martin Ouellette made 32 for Maine.
The teams swapped power-play goals through the game’s first two periods as Jake Rutt staked Maine to a 1-0 lead in the first period before Wilson equalized in the second period.
“It was a missed opportunity,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead, who was pleased with his team’s first-period performance before three consecutive penalties in the second period, two on Kyle Beattie and one on Joey Diamond, swung the momentum.
Seniors Beattie and Diamond were each called for three penalties in the game,
“We can’t afford to have them taking penalties and most of them were stick penalties,” said Whitehead.
Wilson’s third-period go-ahead goal was set up by freshman defenseman Christian Folin.
Folin made a power move as he busted toward the Maine net and got off a quick wrister from point-blank range.
Ouellette made the save, but the rebound spilled into the high slot and Wilson wristed it past
“Folin cut across and took the goalie with him so I had an empty cage,” said Wilson.
Pendenza also scored on a rebound this time after a Maine giveaway.
“They turned the puck over at the blue line and A.J. [White] took a shot that went off [Ouellette’s] pad,” said Pendenza. “I [partially] fanned on the rebound but it went over his [glove-side] shoulder.”
“Getting those two quick goals changed the flow of the game,” said UMass Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “I thought we got more aggressive as the game went on.”
Holmstrom’s insurance goal came when Chad Ruhwedel’s shot from the midpoint went off the shaft of his stick and over Ouellette’s shoulder. He was parked at the top of the crease.
Maine has now allowed seven power-play goals in the last 20 chances spanning the past four games.
After losing the momentum, Maine had difficulty generating scoring chances and the River Hawks were efficient in keeping the Black Bears on the back foot and taking the play to them.
“It was frustrating,” said Maine junior right wing Mark Anthoine.
“We didn’t get pucks to the net and crash the net in the third period. That’s what Lowell did,” said Whitehead. “Lowell has a very good team.”
UMass Lowell outshot Maine 13-9 in the first period and had a slight edge in play, but Rutt scored the only goal.
Shore passed the puck to the open Rutt at the left point and Rutt had room to carry it to the middle of the left faceoff circle before wristing the puck through a screen.
The puck hit the near-side post and dropped behind Hellebuyck before rolling in.
It was Rutt’s fourth goal of the season, and all of them have come on the power play.
His goal came a few minutes after teammate Ben Hutton had hit the underside of the crossbar with a screened wrister from the left point.
Maine had four consecutive power plays spanning the first 30 minutes but the River Hawks picked up three in a row over the last 10 minutes of the second period and capitalized when Wilson received a pass from Ruhwedel in the right circle and snapped a wrister through a screen that beat Ouellette.
“It went off someone’s shin pads and went five-hole,” said Anthoine.
The goal was reviewed to see if a Lowell player was in the crease, but the call was upheld.
UMass Lowell outshot Maine 9-7 in the period thanks to the power plays.
Whitehead felt the River Hawks tried to get under the skin of the feisty and oft-penalized Diamond but it is typical and his team’s leading goal scorer has to keep his composure and stay out of the penalty box.
He expects his team to be ready for Friday night’s game.
“We’ve had our backs against the wall all season. We’re pretty comfortable,” said Whitehead.