The setting was unique and surreal.
Two teams had traveled more than 3,000 miles to decide the NCAA Division I hockey championship in California, the first time a Frozen Four had ever been held there.
It was April 3, 1999, and the two schools that met in the championship game at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim were not only from the same league, Hockey East, they were also archrivals: the University of Maine and the University of New Hampshire.
UMaine had one NCAA title to its credit, in 1993, but UNH had never won one. That prompted UMaine fans to label it the “University of No Hardware.”
It turned out to be one of the best finals in NCAA history. UMaine triumphed 3-2 on Marcus Gustafsson’s goal in overtime.
“As soon as I saw it go in, I couldn’t believe it, Gustafsson said. “I saw a lot of Maine fans so I skated over there and jumped up on the glass where they were. It was a fantastic feeling.”
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Ben Guite’s first-period goal and linemate Niko Dimitrakos’ second-period goal had staked UMaine to a 2-0 lead. It appeared as though the other member of their line, Dan Kerluke, had extended the lead to 3-0 but his goal was nullified because Jason Vitorino had his skates in the crease.
UNH took advantage of its good fortune as Darren Haydar’s short-handed breakaway goal made it 2-1 in the second period and Mike Souza — who is now the Wildcats’ head coach — tied it early in the third.
Both teams had glittering chances to win it in regulation and overtime, but UMaine’s Alfie Michaud (46 saves) and UNH’s Ty Conklin (36 stops) put on a sensational goaltending exhibition throughout.
UNH’s John Sadowski had one of the best chances to decide it in overtime. He won a faceoff against Dimitrakos and found himself unattended in the low slot where he corralled a teammate’s rebound. He pulled the puck to his left and tried to flip a back-hander past Michaud, who made a lunging save.
“I gave up a bad rebound and then I bit when I thought he was going to shoot it right away [on the forehand side]. I was desperate so I dove across and got a piece of my blocker on it,” recalled Michaud, who is now an assistant coach at UMaine.
Guite, now UMaine’s associate head coach, had been kicked out of the faceoff circle for an infraction, resulting in Dimitrakos replacing him for the draw against Sadowski.
Guite said he had failed to remind Dimitrakos that Sadowski was Dimitrakos’ responsibility after they dropped the puck.
“That almost cost us a national championship. Alfie made a big save,” Guite said.
Guite recalled that it was a penalty-filled game.
“I felt uneasy the whole game. Even if we had gone up 3-0, I thought the game could still go either way because UNH had such a potent offense,” Guite said.
That offense included Hobey Baker Award winner Jason Krog, who racked up 85 points.
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Michaud said head coach Shawn Walsh told the players between the third period and overtime to change their underwear and put on dry stuff.
“He thought it would make us lighter. Then he told us it could be a long time [before someone scored] because of the way the game was going,” Michaud said.
Gustafsson remembers being well-prepared for the game and that UMaine treated it as just another game while fully aware it was on the biggest of stages.
“We were so focused,” said Gustafsson, who had just come off the bench on a line change when he ended the scintillating thriller.
Cory Larose made a nifty pass to him from the left side and Gustafsson adhered to assistant coach Grant Standbrook’s advice to get his shot off quickly before the goalie could get set.
“I didn’t get all of it. I shot it quick, but I fanned on it a little bit. [Conklin] couldn’t control the rebound and then he dove for it. It was a race to see who was going to get to the puck first, and I flipped it over him,” Gustafsson said.
“When Marcus scored, I couldn’t believe it,” Michaud said. “I don’t know if I felt jubilation or relief. Conklin had been so good in overtime. We had so many chances. [David] Cullen hit the post and he robbed Larose with a Dominik Hasek kind of save.”
“It was pretty cool to win it,” Guite said.
Michaud said he tried to enjoy the moment while also being fully aware that he was facing a formidable adversary in Conklin.
“I had to be ready for the next shot,” said Michaud, who was chosen the NCAA Tournament’s Outstanding Player.
UMaine, which had beaten Boston College 2-1 in overtime in the national semifinals on Bobby Stewart’s goal, had avenged 6-1 and 4-1 losses at UNH to end the regular season, which had cost it the regular-season title.
Guite, Michaud and Gustafsson will never forget the huge throngs of fans at the Portland International Jetport and at Alfond Arena when they returned. They received a police escort from Portland to Orono.
“Gov. [Angus] King met us at the airport. That was cool,” Michaud said. “And when we got back, our cars were all decorated. They were proud Mainers who appreciated what we did.”
Gustafsson said people still approach him and want to talk about the game.
“They said it was one of the best games they had ever seen,” he said.
That 1998-1999 team, which had fewer scholarships than the other Frozen Four schools due to penalties imposed in 1996 for a series of NCAA rules violations, wound up 31-6-4.
The players have remained close and get together every five years to celebrate that memorable season.