DURHAM — Call it a White Out the Whitt Split.
The University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team knocked off border rival Maine 3-2 in thrilling fashion on senior forward Ara Nazarian’s goal in overtime on Friday night in front of the largest Whittemore Center crowd of the year at 6,152.
The Wildcats made a late bid for a dramatic finish on Saturday night, too, but came up short and lost to the Black Bears, 5-3, in front of an even larger crowd — the first Whitt sellout of 6,501 since December of 2016 — making for a fun and festive environment on the 20th anniversary of the first White Out the Whitt.
“Obviously, we’re not happy with a split,” Nazarian said late Saturday night. “We’re not going to bury our heads and pout about it. It’s hockey. You’re not going to win every game. There were a big two points out there tonight and Maine obviously took them. We’ve just got to come back to practice on Monday with a positive attitude and work hard every day and prepare for Vermont.”
Little time to savor wins, even over the Black Bears. Little time to stew over losses.
The Wildcats and the rest of Hockey East are in a playoff race that’s heating up as the weekends and games flash by.
UNH is down to seven games remaining in the regular season.
Coach Mike Souza’s team plays a pair at Vermont’s Gutterson Field House next weekend against a group that took three of a possible four points at Providence College over the weekend.
The Wildcats then have a weekend off before returning to action with home games against Northeastern on Friday, Feb. 22 and Saturday, Feb. 23.
UNH came out of the weekend in seventh place in the Hockey East standings, the same it was when the weekend began.
The Wildcats have improved their lot in the league by going undefeated in their last six league games — at 4-0-2 — before Saturday night. They are 10-9-8 overall and 6-6-5 in Hockey East.
That puts them within a point of Boston University and Providence, who are tied for fifth place and within two points of Northeastern, which is in fourth. The standings have tightened so much that the Wildcats, who have played one more game than most teams, are within three points of UMass Lowell and four of second-place Boston College.
Then there’s the other end of the playoffs that needs watching.
For the first time this year, only eight of the 11 teams in Hockey East will qualify for the league tournament.
Maine is in eighth place, two points behind UNH. Vermont has climbed into ninth place, seven behind the Wildcats.
“Each and every team in Hockey East, all 11, are still alive and still fighting to get into the final eight, the tournament of eight, if you will,” Souza said. “I was disappointed we didn’t close out the weekend. No one’s going to give you anything in this league and anyone who’s been around it for a long time certainly knows that. And anyone who’s been around the UNH-Maine rivalry for a long time knows that neither team is going to lie down. They played like a desperate team tonight. They came out and for large stretches outcompeted us and they deserved to win tonight.”
UNH’s special teams play has been superb of late especially. The Wildcats came into the weekend ranked second in the league and in the top 10 in the country in both power play and penalty kill.
The Black Bears had two power-play chances and scored on both of them. The Wildcats had two power plays and could not get a goal.
Maine jumped in front with a pair of first-period goals.
The Wildcats tied it before the period ended with goals by senior Frankie Cefalu and Nazarian just 17 seconds part.
Maine scored its second power play goal late in the second period and made it 4-2 just 2:50 into the third period.
Souza pulled goalie Mike Robinson for an extra attacker with three minutes to play.
The coach took a timeout with 1:51 left and a faceoff in the Maine end and defenseman Max Gildon, off a faceoff win by Marcus Vela, ripped a shot top shelf to cut the lead to 4-3.
The Wildcats pulled Robinson again in the last minute, but this time Maine’s Mitchell Fossier ended it with an empty net goal. Fossier had two goals and two assists for the night.
There would be no late-game heroics.
“Any time Maine comes in and beats us at our home place it hurts a little, stings a little,” Nazarian said. “Again, it’s just put this weekend behind us. We’ve got a lot more hockey to play. A lot more big Hockey East points on the line. We’re just going to focus on that right now.”
That was Souza’s message.
“You know what?” he said. “I’m proud of the way our team’s played lately. It’s time to hit the reset button and get back to work on Monday and it’s a huge week of preparation for a really good opponent in Vermont and another fun place to play. It will be a great atmosphere up at the Gut. I’m excited to get going and turn the page on tonight and move forward.”