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Men’s ice hockey falls to Vermont in opening round of Hockey East playoffs

The University of Maine Black Bears men’s ice hockey team saw their season come to a sudden and unfortunate end on Wednesday, March 8, falling to the University of Vermont Catamounts 4-2 in the opening round of the Hockey East playoffs. Maine had rallied as the year wound down, climbing the HE standings as high as sixth before the conclusion of the regular season. In his second full-length season at the helm of the Black Bears, head coach Ben Barr helped lead his group to a 15-16-5 record, more than doubling the number of wins from the previous season. 

Things looked promising for Maine early on in the contest with third-year forward Lynden Breen beating fellow third-year, goaltender Gabe Carriere, to open the scoring on the power play and ignite a nearly sold-out Alfond Arena. With the building jumping and momentum firmly in the direction of the Black Bears on the back of the opening tally, Barr’s group needed to stick to their game if they were to knock off Todd Woodcroft’s bottom-seeded traveling squad. Outshooting the Catamounts 16-4 at the end of the first period, the Black Bears looked as if they had their paws grasped firmly around a ticket to the next round.

Vermont wasn’t going to go away quietly though, capitalizing on a power play of their own via second-year forward Timofei Spitserov 13 minutes into the second period and knotting the game up at one. Maine’s third-year goaltender and fan-favorite Victor Östman continued what has been an otherwise herculean season, saving Maine’s bacon on numerous occasions after Vermont began to register shots on target. However, the script showcased a different story than the first period as Vermont outshot Maine in the second 12-8. Östman ended the night with 26 saves, while Carriere finished with 28. 

Maine’s man of the hour, Breen, found himself right in the middle of the madness yet again less than a minute into the third period, gathering a rebound off the stick of first-year forward Grayson Arnott on the doorstep and placing it calmly into the back of the net. The goal, only 48 seconds into the final frame, brought the Alfond back to life as the Naked Five ran a rare counter-clockwise route around the concourse. Breen’s goal tied him for the second most goals by a Black Bear since the 2011-12 season with number 27 lighting the lamp 21 times over that span.

The Catamounts refused to be beaten that easily and continued to outshoot the Black Bears throughout the entirety of the third period. Miscommunication behind Maine’s goal led to Vermont’s second-year forward Andrei Buyalsky getting open in space right in front of the opposing goal before he was able to bury a quick feed from his teammate, first-year forward Massimo Lombardini, and tie the game up at two midway through the third period.

While Maine’s group aimed to activate some form of damage control, the efforts backfired horribly. First-year forward Parker Lindauer’s penalty led to a dangerously-timed UVM powerplay as the third period began to draw to a close. With 6 minutes left to play, Vermont’s second-year forward Isak Walther capitalized on Östman’s overreaction. A move behind the goal drew Östman out of his crease and behind the goal, while Walther tucked the puck just barely over the goalline. Fourth-year defenseman Dawson Bruneski attempted to guide the puck off the line, but the extension proved to be to no avail as the Catamounts took a 3-2 lead.

Understanding the dire nature of their situation, Barr’s crew went to work and noticeably upped the intensity level for the final few minutes of the game. The Black Bears were lucky enough to draw a penalty with just under two minutes to play and took the opportunity to pull Östman from his crease, creating a 6-on-4 advantage for Maine. The Black Bears continued to come inches from finding a clear shot but couldn’t seem to break through the last gasp-laden efforts from Vermont. Finally, after the action had reached a boiling point, fourth-year Vermont forward William Lemay sent the puck down the length of the ice and scored the dagger with just over 38 seconds to play. 

Fans exited the arena in droves as time expired, marking a painful end to what had been a promising season. While it’s unclear how the Black Bears were to fare against Boston University had they advanced, the chance to see our boys play for a spot in the semifinals is one that I know a majority of us wanted to have. 

The year as a whole most definitely should not be considered a failure. While the previous two years reached the same heights as in years past, the group passes the eye test with flying colors. Their regular season successes and domineering wins over nationally-ranked programs such as UMass Lowell, Providence and Merrimack this year showcase the exceptional growth the program has seen in recent years. Ben Barr has been able to instill a sense of pride and confidence back into the organization that many had feared would be lost with the passing of Dennis “Red” Gendron in 2021. 

Maine’s group will need to accommodate for the losses of their captains, graduate student Jakub Sirota and fourth-year forward Ben Poisson, as well as Bruneski, Matthew Fawcett, Didrik Henbrant and Justin Michaelian. Barr’s newest recruits have already been announced, however, and fans of the Black Bears will need to wait for fall to see the new crop of talent take the ice in Orono.

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