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UNH hockey team misses opportunity to jump back into first place

  • New Hampshire goalie Casey DeSmith looks up as he gloves a save against Maine during the second period of a college hockey game in Durham, N.H., Friday, March 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

    New Hampshire goalie Casey DeSmith looks up as he gloves a save against Maine during the second period of a college hockey game in Durham, N.H., Friday, March 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • New Hampshire defenseman Julian Agosta, left, levels Maine forward Jake Rutt on a hard check during the first period of a college hockey game in Durham, N.H., Friday, March 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

    New Hampshire defenseman Julian Agosta, left, levels Maine forward Jake Rutt on a hard check during the first period of a college hockey game in Durham, N.H., Friday, March 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • New Hampshire goalie Casey DeSmith, left, makes a save on a shot by Maine forward Ryan Lomberg during the first period of a college hockey game in Durham, N.H., Friday, March 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

    New Hampshire goalie Casey DeSmith, left, makes a save on a shot by Maine forward Ryan Lomberg during the first period of a college hockey game in Durham, N.H., Friday, March 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • New Hampshire goalie Casey DeSmith looks up as he gloves a save against Maine during the second period of a college hockey game in Durham, N.H., Friday, March 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
  • New Hampshire defenseman Julian Agosta, left, levels Maine forward Jake Rutt on a hard check during the first period of a college hockey game in Durham, N.H., Friday, March 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
  • New Hampshire goalie Casey DeSmith, left, makes a save on a shot by Maine forward Ryan Lomberg during the first period of a college hockey game in Durham, N.H., Friday, March 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

DURHAM – Home-ice advantage was at hand, a Hockey East regular-season championship was close, and a sellout crowd of 6,501 fans packed the Whittemore Center to see their team rise to the occasion and come through with everything at stake.

In a way, that’s what they got. The fans did see a team post its biggest win of the season. Unfortunately for them, it was the hated rival from the northeast saving its season, while the local team watched its chances at a significant accomplishment slip through its fingers.

A late rally wasn’t enough as the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team lost in disappointing fashion to Maine, 4-3. The result, coupled with Merrimack’s overtime win over Massachusetts, clinched a spot in the Hockey East tournament for the Black Bears, while the No. 4 Wildcats (18-9-6, 13-8-5) saw a golden opportunity at an outright conference regular-season title vanish.

“Obviously, we’re very, very disappointed,” Coach Dick Umile said. “The second period was just awful. We couldn’t handle the puck, we got outplayed. The shots that they got, we probably gave them the shots with the way we passed the puck.”

UNH entered the game trailing UMass Lowell by a point in the standings, and got a break when the River Hawks fell to Providence, 3-0. But with yesterday’s loss to the Black Bears (11-17-7, 7-12-7), during which UNH trailed at one point 4-1, the Wildcats are now tied for third in the conference, and can only hope to finish tied atop the standings.

UNH also saw its chances at home-ice advantage for the Hockey East quarterfinals, which seemed a lock earlier in the week, take a hit. A loss today and wins by Boston University and Boston College would put the Wildcats on the road for the best-of-three series, making today’s season finale a crucial contest.

“We blew that opportunity, to win the regular-season championship,” Umile said. “The cards were laid out for us to do it. We’ve got to win (today) to get home ice. That’s where we’re at.”

UNH put itself in that position with a deflating series in the third period. The Wildcats had spent much of the game in the Maine zone but had nothing to show for it with a 2-0 deficit, but cut that gap in half when an Eric Knodel shot from the point deflected off Dalton Speelman’s skate and over goalie Martin Ouellette’s shoulder with 6:36 to go.

While the goal appeared to put the Wildcats back in the game, it instead set the stage for their unraveling. Devin Shore won a faceoff and got the puck over to Mike Cornell, whose shot from the point beat Casey DeSmith just 23 seconds later, and Kyle Beattie scored on a wraparound 19 seconds after that to put the Black Bears up 4-1.

“That first goal we scored … was huge for us,” Knodel said. “We needed a strong shift the next one after that to make sure we could keep the momentum going, but unfortunately they got a goal and it kind of took the wind out of our sails.”

UNH wasn’t finished, scoring twice with DeSmith (18 saves) pulled during the last three minutes. Knodel made it 4-2 on a slap shot from the point and Austin Block knocked home a rebound with 23.2 seconds left to make it a one-goal game, but the Wildcats weren’t able to threaten again in the closing seconds.

“We worked a lot harder during the last couple of minutes than we did most of the whole game,” Knodel said. “We made stuff happen, but a little too late. We need to bring that the whole 60 minutes.”

A series that defined the frustrating night came after Maine defenseman Brice O’Connor went to the box for tripping with 11:56 left in the period. The break became a disaster, as Black Bears forward Devin Shore brought the puck into the UNH zone. He went toward the corner and the Wildcats defenders followed him, leaving Steven Swavely open in the slot for a shot that beat DeSmith and put Maine ahead with 11:15 to go.

Maine went up 2-0 in the third. Jon Swavely took the puck around the net and tried to beat DeSmith from up close. The sophomore goalie stopped the shot but the rebound went to Beattie in the left, who knocked it in with 10:42 left in the game.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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