BOSTON – There weren’t many dry eyes. Junior defenseman Mat Deschamps wept into a towel as senior defenseman Prestin Ryan tried to console him.
The University of Maine Black Bears had far exceeded expectations to reach the NCAA Division I men’s hockey championship game, but the 1-0 loss to Denver at the FleetCenter Saturday night was difficult to swallow.
It was Maine’s second one-goal loss in an NCAA championship game in three years. The Bears lost to Minnesota 4-3 in overtime two years ago.
“It’s an awful feeling. It’s tough to describe. It’s like a death in the family,” said junior right wing Dustin Penner. “You just don’t want to believe it.”
“I’m just so stunned right now,” said Ryan. “I don’t even know what to say. I don’t know how we did not win the game. It just boggles my mind. It never came into my mind that we’d ever lose.”
Sophomore center Gabe Gauthier’s power-play goal 12:26 into the game, eight minutes after an apparent power-play goal by Maine sophomore center Derek Damon was waved off when a video replay showed that Mike Hamilton’s skate was in the crease, was all the Pioneers needed to claim their first NCAA title since 1969.
Denver, picked to finish fifth in the WCHA by the league’s coaches, finished at 27-12-5 while snapping Maine’s 10-game winning streak.
Maine, chosen fourth in Hockey East in the coaches’ preseason poll, wound up 33-8-3, including four 1-0 losses.
Maine had won eight straight one-goal games and finished the season with a 15-5 mark in one-goal games.
It was the first-ever 1-0 NCAA championship game.
Senior goalie and tournament Most Valuable Player Adam Berkhoel made 24 saves, including 12 Grade-A (high-percentage) stops, and his teammates blocked 27 shots.
Maine attempted 67 shots to Denver’s 36 and had a 24-20 edge in shots on goal. Maine generated 23 Grade-A scoring attempts to Denver’s 15.
Like Denver, the Bears played exceptional team defense.
“Berkhoel stood on his head. They played an excellent game. We just came up short. Those 1-0 games came back to kick us in the butt,” said Maine goalie Jimmy Howard, who finished with 19 saves, including seven Grade-A’s, in holding an opponent to one goal or less for the 15th time in 20 starts.
Gauthier’s goal was set up by Connor James after Maine defenseman Troy Barnes failed to clear the puck. James cut Barnes off along the boards, wheeled out of the corner, and passed it to Gauthier in the circle at the far post.
“I got lucky,” said James. “I don’t think he [Barnes] got a whole lot of it. I got around him [Barnes], passed it to Gabe, and he scored. That doesn’t really happen that much against Jimmy Howard.”
“I gave him a holler. I was open,” said Gauthier, who was 14 feet in front of Howard. “He heard me yell and threw it over and I just put it between Howard’s legs. It was rolling a bit and I had some time. I just wanted to get it off my stick as soon as I could and I wanted to keep it low and throw it on net. I was hoping for a rebound or, better, a goal.”
“I tried to chip it up, but their guy got it and made a nice pass,” said Barnes.
Howard said Gauthier beat him with a “nice shot.”
The Bears had a glorious opportunity to tie it in the final 2:09 when they had a 5-on-3 for a span of 1:25. That turned into a 6-on-3 when Howard was pulled in favor of the extra attacker with 1:21 remaining.
But the power play, which has been the team’s most glaring weakness all season, finally cost the Bears dearly.
Maine was able to get only three shots on net during the advantage, although a Jon Jankus shot glanced off the crossbar.
“The hockey gods were on my side, I guess,” said Berkhoel.
Denver senior center Max Bull, who was the first forward used on the penalty kill, said they tried to keep a man covering the point “and two guys down in the crease to clear pucks out.
“We didn’t want to give up any big bombs. We didn’t want them to get any huge one-timers. If they were going to do a toe-drag and fire a wrister, we had confidence Berkhoel would make the save.”
“We tried to take the shooting lanes away and clear the puck if we could,” said senior defenseman and captain Ryan Caldwell. “Adam was a great penalty-killer tonight. He made a lot of big saves.”
“I just thought, ‘Make saves. Be the man,'” said Berkhoel. “They talked me up for the past month. Supposedly, I’m one of the best goalies in the nation and I really wanted to fulfill that.”
Berkhoel credited his teammates for their play in that situation and throughout the game.
“They helped me out a great deal by blocking shots and letting me see the puck. I didn’t have to make that many hard saves,” said Berkhoel, who notched his seventh shutout of the season.
Maine’s power play went 2-for-40 in the postseason, including 1-for-22 in the NCAA Tournament.
“The power play eventually caught up to us,” said Maine senior right wing Colin Shields. “We had a chance to win the game or at least tie it. You can blame it on anything you want. We didn’t come through.”
The Denver players said the disallowed goal was the turning point in the game. But the Maine players disagreed.
“That gave us a huge lift. It was like a second chance,” said Pioneer senior left wing James.
“The crowd just went nuts. If that crowd had gotten going any more, I’m sure it would have been really tough to play through. We settled back down and refocused after that,” said James.
“We got our second wind there,” said Bull. “Once we got the power-play opportunity and Gauthier stuffed one home, we pretty much knew what we had to do for the rest of the game. We had to stay aggressive but keep it safe. We couldn’t give up odd-man rushes or breakaways.”
“That’s the breaks,” said Penner. “That’s not where we lost the game. We had a lot of chances to win it.”
“If it’s no goal, it’s no goal. I don’t think it was a big factor,” said Maine senior left wing and captain Todd Jackson.
“Maybe now you can look back at it and say it was an important thing. But I don’t think it was a big deal at the time. We still had a power play and still had more opportunities on the power play after they scored,” said Shields.
Hamilton did not interfere with the play. He was at the other side of the crease from where Damon stickhandled around Berkhoel and tucked it in. But Hamilton’s skate was clearly in the crease.
“I thought it was only [called] if I was obstructing the goalie,” said Hamilton.
Maine was 27-1-1 when scoring first.
“I thought it was a goal,” said Berkhoel. “But I’m not complaining. We won the game. If they don’t interfere with the goalie, I don’t see why that shouldn’t be a goal. The guy [Damon] made a great play on me.”
Denver, which was without suspended right wing and third-leading scorer Lukas Dora, played the neutral-zone trap “very well,” according to Damon.
“That’s what you have to do against teams like Maine. You don’t want to run against them. They have so much speed and offensive talent, if you get in a run-and-gun match with them, you’re probably going to lose,” said James. “We tried to play conservative and tried to play smart, and it worked for us.”
“They were able to get one and we couldn’t,” said junior center Ben Murphy. “They played great. They played the way they wanted to play. This is a tough one to swallow. We played hard tonight.”
Berkhoel was joined on the all-tourney team by teammates James and Caldwell, Maine’s Ryan and Penner, and Minnesota-Duluth Hobey Baker Award winner Junior Lessard.
PIONEERS 1, BLACK BEARS 0
Denver (27-12-5) 1 0 0 ? 1
Maine (33-8-3) 0 0 0 ? 0
First period ? 1. Denver, Gauthier 18 (James), 12:26 (pp); Penalties: Bull, Den (checking from behind), 3:39; Penner, Maine, (holding stick), 5:13; Gauthier, Den (roughing), 5:13; Deschamps, Maine (obstruction interference), 11:49; Bull, Den (cross-checking), 13:25; Jankus, Maine (tripping), 14:24; Corbin, Den (holding), 17:03
Second period ? None; Penalties: Jackson, Maine (tripping), 6:26; Gauthier, Den (cross-checking), 6:31; Jankus, Maine (holding stick), 6:31; Drummond, Den (hooking), 8:16; Caldwell, Den (roughing), 9:47; Hamilton, Maine (roughing), 9:47
Third period ? None; Penalties: Drummond, Den (obstruction holding), 3:24; Ryan, Maine (interference), 8:09; Foster, Den (roughing), 12:15; Deschamps, Maine (roughing), 12:15; Laatsch, Den (hooking), 17:51; Gauthier, Den (delay of game), 18:26
Shots on goal: Denver 4-6-10?20. Maine 6-9-9?24
Goaltenders: Denver, Berkhoel 24-11-4 (24 shots-24 saves). Maine, Howard 14-4-3 (20-19)
Power-play opportunities: Denver 1 of 4; Maine 0 of 6
High-percentage scoring chances: Denver 3-6-6?15; Maine 6-8-9?23
A?18,597 (FleetCenter record for hockey)
National champions in men’s Division I college hockey since 1990:
2004 ? Denver
2003 ? Minnesota
2002 ? Minnesota
2001 ? Boston College
2000 ? North Dakota
1999 ? Maine
1998 ? Michigan
1997 ? North Dakota
1996 ? Michigan
1995 ? Boston University
1994 ? Lake Superior State
1993 ? Maine
1992 ? Lake Superior State
1991 ? Northern Michigan
1990 ? Wisconsin