ORONO, Maine — Thirteen isn’t considered a lucky number.
But the UMass Lowell River Hawks would disagree.
The River Hawks played smothering in-your-face defense and used a third-period goal from senior center and captain Ben Holmstrom to notch their first-ever Hockey East playoff win in their 13th postseason meeting with the University of Maine, 2-1 Friday night in the first game in their best-of-three quarterfinal series.
Scoring chances were few and far between as the 3,000 fans at Alfond Arena witnessed a tight-checking affair that often bogged down in the neutral zone and was laden with icings and faceoffs.
The fifth-seeded River Hawks are now 19-14-4 and extended their unbeaten streak to six games (4-0-2) and moved within one win of advancing to the Hockey East semifinals.
Game two will be tonight at 7 with the if-necessary game set for Sunday at 7.
Maine fell to 16-16-3 and lost for the seventh time in nine games. It was the Black Bears fourth straight home loss.
The River Hawks have won three of the last four games at Alfond Arena.
It was the first time Maine had been held to fewer than two goals since a 6-1 loss at Boston College on Jan. 15.
Holmstrom’s game-winner 6:55 into the third period was set up by a hustling Ryan Blair, who intercepted an attempted clearout at the left point.
“I came off the bench on a line change and saw them try to rim it [out of the Maine defensive zone],” explained Blair. “I got to the puck and threw it on net.”
“I tipped it and it hit their goalie [Dave Wilson] and it popped in the air. I took a whack at it,” said Holmstrom who batted the waist-high puck behind Wilson.
Wilson said Holmstrom’s original tip-in “hit my stick” before going airborne.
“He hit it right out of the air. It was a great goal,” said Wilson.
The River Hawks used their defensive prowess and significant edge in experience — UML had nine seniors in their lineup compared to Maine’s four — to protect the lead masterfully.
Senior goalie Carter Hutton was required to make just two Grade-A (high-percentage) saves in the final period after having to make just one over the first two periods.
He finished with an overall total of 18 stops.
Maine senior Wilson, starting in place of the suspended Scott Darling, turned in an impressive 19-save performance including eight Grade-A stops. It was his first start since an Oct. 10 loss to Union College (6-3).
“Dave Wilson was the best player on the ice,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead.
The teams swapped first-period goals as Maine redshirt freshman Mark Nemec scored his first career goal off a breakaway at the 5:00 mark only to have UML senior defenseman Jeremy Dehner equalize on the power play at the 18:52 mark.
Neither team was able to score in a tight-checking second period although Maine’s Tanner House hit the crossbar and the teammate Klas Leidermark actually put the puck in the net with 7:33 remaining during a scramble only to have it waved off.
But referees John Gravallese and Tom Quinn ruled that the whistle had blown before the puck went in the net and the video replay was inconclusive.
“Tom Quinn told me that the audio didn’t work,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead who was adamant that the puck had crossed the goal line before the whistle blew.
The referees could have heard if the whistle had blown before the puck crossed the line if the audio had worked.
Whitehead said he learned later that the audio hadn’t been hooked up.
Maine had a glorious chance to take the lead with 1:20 remaining when David deKastrozza maneuvered around a UML defenseman at the offensive blue line to create a two-on-one with Spencer Abbott.
But deKastrozza’s pass across landed in the skates of Abbott, who was facing an open net.
DeKastrozza made a similar play early in the third period to set up Robby Dee, who was also staring at an open net. But UML defenseman Barry Goers hooked Dee and, although he was penalized, Maine didn’t convert.
Maine’s power play, ranked number one in the nation, was rendered ineffective by the River Hawks.
Maine had its string of 12 straight games with at least a power-play goal snapped as the Bears went 0-for-5 with the man advantage.
The River Hawks limited their time and space with the puck, blocked a lot of shots, and made timely clearances.
“We had trouble getting it into the [offensive] zone and they were all over us,” said Maine junior defenseman and assistant captain Jeff Dimmen.
“We tried to put three men on the puck,” explained Blair.
“We couldn’t get the puck to the net. They did a great job clogging up the net front,” said Whitehead.
Nemec opened the scoring when he came out of the penalty box, took a pass from Joey Diamond, and snapped a wrister past Hutton’s glove.
But the River Hawks answered when Dehner’s centering pass from the left corner glanced off Dimmen’s skates and into the net.
“I got a lucky bounce,” said Dehner.
UMass Lowell outshot Maine 21-19.