The last time Maine won the NCAA hockey championship, Paul Kariya was at the center of the celebration.
Six years later, co-captian Steve Kariya was skating around the home ice of his Mighty Ducks' star brother, holding the championship trophy over his head after the Black Bears' 3-2 overtime victory over New Hampshire Saturday in front of 14,447 at the Arrowhead Pond.
"I've never been on a team that's won anything," he said, "but I can tell you now there's no better feeling."
The players and fans were riding an emotional roller coaster in the first nine minutes of overtime after half a dozen near-misses and some spectacular saves by Maine goalie Alfie Michaud and New Hampshire's Ty Conklin.
Seven minutes into overtime, Kariya broke through the defense and centered the puck to defenseman David Cullen, who fired from point-blank range. Conklin sprawled to make the save, and then kicked away a follow shot by Cory Larose. Two minutes later, the Wildcats came inches from getting their hands on the trophy when Hobey Baker Award winner Jason Krog's deflection shot was tipped away by Michaud.
Then Larose sent a long pass to senior Marcus Gustafsson, who shot and then got a stick on his rebound, pushing it past Conklin for the game-winner at 10:50 of the first overtime.
Asked how he felt when he saw the puck go in the net, Gustafsson said, "It's kind of a dizziness, just pure happiness."
Maine, which had been prohibited from playing in the NCAA tournament in 1996 and '97 because of recruiting and other violations, survived a first period dominated by New Hampshire and lost a 2-0 lead before it rallied.
"It's been a wonderful journey," Maine Coach Shawn Walsh said. "These guys had faith, loyalty, fraternity and confidence. The first win in '93 was for the state of Maine. This one is for the players."
New Hampshire's top line--center Krog and wingers Mike Souza and Darren Haydar--have accounted for more than half of the Wildcats' goals and they were on their game in the early going. The three combined for 14 first-period shots.
"They really jumped us and outplayed us in the first and we had to adjust," Walsh said. "So we shadowed Krog and Haydar and locked them up."
Walsh says the Hockey East rivals, located about 200 miles apart, have respect for each other and described it as "a nice rivalry, not a bitter rivalry."
You certainly wouldn't have guessed that by watching the first 20 minutes.
The officials spent almost five minutes talking to the team captains after a chippy first period during which Maine's Robert Ek knocked Krog to the ice long after a whistle and New Hampshire's Christian Bragnalo slammed Bobby Stewart headfirst into the boards.
Fourteen minutes of penalty time were called in the first, but when the teams weren't tussling, they were whacking the puck at the goal. The 83 shots taken by the two teams were the third most in championship game history.
New Hampshire had an 11-3 edge in shots at one point in the first, but it was Maine that took the first shot--if you want to call it a shot--that counted. Ben Guite, sliding face first across the goal mouth, managed to slap a rebound past Conklin 15:47 into the first period.
The Black Bears made it 2-0 at 4:10 of the second on another rebound that caromed all the way out to Cullen at the top of the right faceoff circle. Cullen fed the puck to freshman Niko Dimitrakos, who was charging in unmolested through the slot. Dimitrakos beat Conklin high on his glove side for his third goal in two games. Maine appeared to take a three-goal advantage with 6 1/2 minutes left in the second when Dan Kerluke jumped out of the penalty box and into a two-on-one rush. Ek gave him the puck and Kerluke swooped in and backhanded a shot under Conklin's pads, but replays showed that Vitorino's right skate was in the crease before Kerluke shot and the goal was disallowed.
"I really don't like that rule," Kariya said, "but this team is so calm and confident. We just went back to work."
So did the Wildcats' No. 1 line. With a two-man advantage after New Hampshire's Chad Onufrechuk was called for slashing before a faceoff, Maine was pounding shots on Conklin when Haydar, who set the school's freshmen scoring record, came out of the penalty box and took a long lead pass from Souza. Fifty feet ahead of the nearest defender, Haydar took his time and flipped a shot over Michaud's shoulder for a short-handed goal that cut Maine's lead to one.
New Hampshire tied the score, 2-2, three minutes into the third period when Haydar stole a clearing pass from Ek behind the Maine net. He slipped the puck along the boards to Krog, who found Souza camped in front of the goal. Souza flipped the puck in the net.
"It hurts and it's supposed to hurt," Wildcat Coach Dick Umile said. "but it doesn't take anything away from what this team accomplished. It was a bounce of the puck that beat us."
Maine Coach Shawn Walsh made the right moves after shaky first period. Page 5