PORTLAND, Maine — Another puzzling performance by his team left University of Maine men’s hockey coach Red Gendron perplexed after Saturday night’s nonconference 7-4 loss to the University of New Hampshire before a sellout crowd at the Cross Insurance Arena.
On the heels of Friday night’s come-from-behind 5-2 win over UNH in Manchester, New Hampshire, that snapped their eight-game losing streak, the Black Bears were poised to complete a sweep by erasing a pair of two-goal deficits to take a 4-3 lead into the third period.
Blaine Byron’s second goal of Maine’s four-goal second period, coming with one-tenth of a second remaining, gave the Black Bears a ton of momentum entering the final 20 minutes.
But senior center Grayson Downing scored three third-period goals, and sophomore defenseman Matias Cleland’s first career goal in his 56th game turned out to be the game-winner as UNH improved to 5-10-1 while Maine fell to 4-13-1, including a 2-4 mark when leading after two periods.
Maine had its 14-game unbeaten streak (11-0-3) at the Cross Insurance Arena snapped. UNH was the last team to beat Maine in Portland, 3-2, on March 2, 1995.
First-period goals by Harry Quast and Matt Willows (power play) staked UNH to a well-deserved 2-0 lead.
Byron and UNH’s Tyler Kelleher swapped early second-period goals before unanswered second-period goals by Ben Hutton, Cedric Lacroix and Byron supplied Maine with its first lead.
But Downing tied it on the power play just 51 seconds into the third period, Cleland broke the deadlock at the 11:59 mark, and Downing added a valuable insurance goal with 3:40 left before he added an empty-netter.
Downing had an assist to go with his hat trick, and Kelleher and Willows had two assists each.
“What infuriated me more than the third period was how we played in the first. The bench was dead. It was as though the guys were thinking ‘Oh, geez, we got to play a hockey game tonight,” said Gendron, whose team was outshot 17-11 in the first period and managed just three high-percentage scoring chances to UNH’s eight.
“We didn’t do the things that had worked for us on Friday night. We didn’t finish any checks in the first period,” said Gendron.
He pointed out that Maine’s physical play was a key to Friday’s win and Saturday’s second-period outburst.
He also said his team’s puck management was poor.
“How many times did we turn the puck over tonight compared to Friday night?,” asked Gendron. “A big part of the game plan was puck management. You need to take care of the puck and make solid high-percentage plays especially against a team like New Hampshire. We did that superbly on Friday night but not tonight.”
Downing began the rally early in the third period on the power play when he came out of the corner and sliced across the low slot unattended before directing Tyler Kelleher’s wrister from the right point past Maine goalie Sean Romeo to the blocker side.
“I would have liked to have read the play better and pushed across, but it was a pretty good goal, I guess,” said Romeo.
“We had a great second period, but they got that fourth goal and kept the momentum. We didn’t push back. It’s tough,” said Maine junior center Steven Swavely.
Cleland broke the tie at the 11:59 mark after a flurry in front of the Maine net. Romeo had made a stop, but the puck eventually worked its way to the left point, and Cleland’s shot beat Romeo to the near post.
“I got stuck in a weird position at the near post after I made a save and he beat me short side. That can’t happen,” said Romeo. “I’ve got to step up more and make bigger saves for my team.”
UNH goalie Adam Clark preserved the lead with a breakaway save off Brian Morgan and two more gems off Connor Leen and Devin Shore.
Downing gave the Wildcats some valuable breathing room when he skated left to right across the low slot, took a pass from Kelleher and tucked a backhander past the helpless Romeo.
Downing capped his hat trick with an empty-netter at the 19:18 mark.
Quast had started the scoring when his wrister from the left point deflected in off a Maine player, and Willows scored with a wrister from the left circle that beat Romeo to the far corner.
Byron scored for the third straight game, converting a wraparound after his initial shot was saved by Clark 57 seconds into of the second period, but Kelleher restored the two-goal lead for the Wildcats at the 6:27 mark with a shot from a tough angle that glanced in off a Black Bear.
Hutton began the comeback 1:05 later by taking a long diagonal pass from Shore between the blue line and the top of the left circle and wristing the puck into the short-side corner past the screened Clark.
Freshman Lacroix’s first career goal drew the Black Bears level at the 13:26 mark when he swatted the puck out of mid-air after Billy Norman, playing in place of the injured Conor Riley, took a shot from the point.
Maine killed off a penalty in the final minutes of the period, and Hutton, who had been penalized, came out of the penalty box and broke in alone on Clark.
Clark made the save on Hutton’s backhander, but Hutton threw the puck in front, and Byron jammed it home just before the period ended.
UNH outshot Maine 41-37.