March 17, 2012

Maine overcomes setbacks to reach Hockey East final

By Andrew Merritt

BOSTON – Give up the first goal? No problem. Lose your leading scorer – the most prolific scorer in the country, no less? No problem. Outshoot your higher-seeded opponent 29-12 over the first two periods and yet only lead by one goal? No problem, not at all. Not for the Maine Black Bears. 

Maine's Joey Diamond notched his 25th goal of the year in the Black Bears win over BU. (Dave Arnold Photography)

The fourth-seeded Black Bears dropped Boston University 5-3 Friday night in the Hockey East semifinals, earning a trip to the Hockey East final, where they’ll meet Boston College.

Sophomore Mark Anthoine scored the winner for Maine, guiding a wrist shot through traffic with 12:17 to go in the third period on a Maine power play. It was his 12th goal of the season for the Lewiston, Maine, native, who scored just one in 2010-11.

The goal also came just minutes after Spencer Abbott, the nation’s leading scorer with 61 points (20 goals, 41 assists), went down hard on a hit from Sean Escobedo in the Black Bears’ end – a play that set up a tying goal by Matt Nieto.

“It was obviously a key moment, a potential turning point,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “It was somewhat of a turning point. It could have a pivotal point for (Boston University) if they kept the momentum going. The opportunity on the power play gave us a chance to recapture the momentum ourselves, and then Mark scored.”

The season isn’t over for BU. The Terriers are probably looking at a 3 seed in the national tournament, with selection set for Sunday. But in the meantime, they’ve got some reflecting to do.

“I can’t describe how disappointed I was in my team’s efforts tonight, or lack of such,” coach Jack Parker said. “We had a lot of key guys just disappear. I thought that we left (goaltender) Kieran (Millan) out to dry a number of times. We gave up four power plays goals and one of them was an empty netter. And (Maine) didn’t have to work for anything. We just turned it over and gave it to them, we gave up opportunity after opportunity.

“We were jumpy as heck, it looked like we were afraid to lose.”

Maine, meanwhile, gets a crack at some revenge. The Black Bears fell to the Eagles in the 2010 final, a 7-6 overtime thriller that ended Maine’s season.

The Terriers struck first when Alex Chiasson stormed the net 2:46 into the game. As he closed in on Sullivan, he stickhandled through traffic, and may have lost his hold on the puck, but it was enough to fool Sullivan for the 1-0 BU lead.

The Black Bears didn’t have an answer for the rest of the first period, but needed only 46 seconds after the first intermission to find one. Joey Diamond took a pass from Matt Mangene in his skates, kicked it to his stick and shoved it home to tie the game, taking a punishing hit from BU defenseman Patrick MacGregor for his troubles.

The Terriers retook the lead five and a half minutes later, when Sahir Gill found Matt Nieto with a perfect blind pass on the power play, setting up a shot into the open side of the net.

From there, though, the Terriers shot themselves in the foot, and the Black Bears were only too happy to take advantage. With 8:38 to go in the second, O’Neill stopped at the top of the slot, walked in a few strides and fired a wrist shot through traffic, beating Millan (39 saves) high glove side to tie it at 2.

“I knew there was a screen in front and it just happened so quick,” O’Neill said. “I saw it was open on the glove side and I just reacted.

“I can't really pump my tires that much,” he said with a smile, “I just kind of reacted.”

After a horrendous D-to-D pass on a BU power play set up a breakaway chance for Abbott, Millan made one of his finest stops of the game, grabbing Abbott’s glove-side shot to keep the game tied. Alexx Privitera, whose fumble led to the breakaway chance, nearly fell trying to recover, and slashed Abbott from behind in desperation.

Millan’s save was good enough to make SportsCenter’s Top Plays Friday night, but the Terriers paid for the play anyway. Privitera’s slashing penalty led to a go-ahead goal by O’Neill, who took a perfect feed from Joey Diamond and ripped a wrist shot over Millan’s outstretched glove, making it 3-2 with 1:35 left in the second period.

Four minutes into the third, Sean Escobedo rode Abbott hard into the boards behind the Maine net, dropping the senior Black Bear to the ice. While Abbott lay in a heap on the ice, BU raced back up the ice and tied it, 3-3, on Matt Nieto’s strike.

Abbott was helped off the ice by teammates Stu Higgins and Mike Cornell, and didn’t return. Whitehead said the outlook for Abbott is “probably not good.”

“We’ll know a little more (Saturday), but it was an elbow to the head, so that’s not a good thing,” said Whitehead, who reiterated that it was an elbow in response to Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna, who apparently reacted from the back of the press conference room to Whitehead’s comment about the play.

“No, it was, an elbow to the head,” Whitehead said, cutting off a reporter’s question. “I watched the video already, Joe.”

Yet even with their biggest star out of the game, the Black Bears held on. Adam Clendening may have gotten away with one with 1:27 left when he hauled down Maine’s Matt Mangene as the Maine winger cruised in on the empty BU net, but even if an automatic goal wasn’t called, Clendening was sent off for holding, and Joey Diamond iced it with an empty-netter a minute later.