by Matt Conyers/CHN Correspondent
ALBANY, N.Y. Maine punched a ticket to its 10th Frozen Four after knocking off top seed Michigan State, 5-4, in the NCAA tournament East Regional final. Sparked by the play of the Regional's Most Outstanding Player, senior John Hopson, who registered two goals on the day, Maine was able to avoid a feverish comeback by the Spartans and capture the program's third trip to Frozen Four in six years.
"This is unbelievable," said assistant captain Michel Leveille. "Tonight was just a great team effort from top to bottom. We are just glad to be going back to the Frozen Four."
Behind the play of Hopson, Maine used another complete effort from the entire squad to garner their 28th victory on the year. After beating Harvard on Saturday 6-1 and now Michigan State in the East Regional, the Black Bears await Wisconsin in the National semifinals on April 6.
"I think this group is really focused on doing something special this year," said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. "We lost [goalie] Jimmy [Howard] but I just sensed a very strong determination from everybody right from the beginning of the school year that we wanted to doing special.
"I am just real happy for these guys. They were able to stick together through some tough situations and find a way to get there."
All tournament netminder Ben Bishop, like most of the team, was overcome with joy upon helping the Black Bears win their first tournament game against the Spartans. Maine was previously 0-for-4 in tourney play with Michigan State.
"It was just unbelievable experience," said Bishop, who had 33 saves. "I am just so happy for seniors they worked so hard. This is what we have worked for all year."
Maine, 5-0 all-time in Pepsi Arena, has advanced to the Frozen Four in each its three visits to Albany for a Regional.
"We're headed to the Frozen Four and have a chance to get that thing that has really eluded us," said senior Derek Damon, who missed Saturday's game, serving a school-imposed suspension.
"It's exciting; I always remember as a kid, watching the 42-1-2 video tape of when Maine won the first one in the Milwaukee. For us to be able to go back there is exciting," said Moore.
For a while, the Black Bears looked like they were going to head back to the Bradley Center easily. The Spartans, however, had other plans. With the Black Bears holding strong at 4-1 five minutes into
the second period, Michigan State made its run. In the final 35 minutes, the Spartans both outshot and outscored the Black Bears.
"Michigan State was not going to go down easily," said Whitehead. "They certainly could have won this game. They fought back and a bounce one we could be sitting here wishing Michigan State good luck. That game could have gone either way."
But it didn't.
Thanks largely to a shot by Colton Fretter at 4:48 of the third period that smacked off the crossbar and proceeded to dance around the goal line until it ultimately took up residence under Bishop's smothering backside.
"[Fretter] tried to do a wraparound and my left skate got caught when I was trying to go across," said Bishop. "I couldn't get my leg on the post, so I tried to get my glove there and the next thing you know I am going flopping on the ice trying to make a save."
"I'll have to see the replay but I don't know how it didn't go in," said Bishop.
The Spartans, watching their season evaporate, continued to press Bishop's net for the final minutes of the game. With Michigan State netminder Jeff Lerg pulled at 19:23 of the third, the Spartans though made their worst mistake: They let Maine captain Greg Moore touch the puck. Only moments after collecting a pass from junior Josh Soares at center ice, Moore rifled a shot from the blue line into the empty net.
"We really stood up and said 'We were not going to let them come back on us,'" said Damon. "Third period is our best period of the year always. We were going to come out and put the hammer down. And we did."
Damon recorded arguably the most pivotal goal for Maine at 3:35 of the second period when he tapped in a beautiful power-play pass from Soares. The pass coming from the far boards established Maine's mighty 4-1 advantage.
"I thought we played a hard game today," said Damon. "I wanted to do anything I could for this team because we have been through a lot this year. I think we have all grown as a team and a family in that locker room."
The Damon goal help build a lead that had already been established thanks to first-period goals from Hopson. Both goals, which came from deflections of slap shots at the point, also featured passes from his brother Keenan.
"I was just fortunate to be in the right spot at the right time," said Hopson. "The first one, Michael Hamilton just shot it off the wall and I just went to the net. The second one was a point shot and I was just able to get my stick on it and redirect it past the goalie."
Defensemen Mike Lundin fired off the second slapshot earning an assist on the power-play goal.
The performance for Hopson is made even more special because of his adventuresome two years at Maine. Hopson came to Orono as a senior, transferring from Alaska-Anchorage, in hopes of getting to play with his brother in the Frozen Four. Fully aware of that dream, Hopson took control of his own destiny.
"Sitting out that whole year makes me appreciate what were given. It really motivated me to play at my peak level," said Hopson.
"It's been great seeing how John Hopson has emerged for us," said Whitehead. "I am just so happy for their family because they took a big chance making this move."
Maine was pleased with its tenacious start, which enabled it to pepper MSU's net for 17 shots in the first. And they knew they had to translate that effort over into the second and third period.
"There wasn't a lot of adjustments we had to make," said Moore. "We just felt like we had to go back to playing like we had in the first period. We needed to get back to taking time and space away. We had to really put pressure on them and play as much hockey in there end as possible."
The Black Bears said they were ready come the third period.
"In between the second and third period our seniors did a great job getting us together and on the same page," said Bishop. "We really went out there and won it for them. We didn't want to see them leave."
"I think it was a heck of a game," said Whitehead. "To advance past Michigan State that is special."
The Black Bears will now have two weeks off before to they head out to Wisconsin to play for the program's third Championship.
"We have a huge task at hand, there is going to be a lot of focus and preparation in the next two weeks," said Moore. "There is no celebrating yet. We haven't accomplished what we want to yet."