DURHAM — Well, of course it ended with a tie. How else could such an unsettled season conclude, but with a resurgent Maine rallying to take a late lead and a desperate New Hampshire managing to hang on?

Maine and New Hampshire skated to a 4-4 overtime tie during a Hockey East matinee that began late Saturday afternoon with sunlight streaming through the upper corner windows of a Whittemore Center packed with a crowd of 6,501.

Because of television preferences, the game had been pushed back from evening to Saturday afternoon, which meant that both teams left the building without knowing their quarterfinal opponents in the upcoming conference tournament.

Maine headed north in a good kind of limbo. The Black Bears (11-17-8 overall, 7-12-8) earned the eighth seed and will hit the road for a best-of-three quarterfinal series. Later in the night, they found out they would play UMass-Lowell.

“At this point, I hope we’re playing Lowell; I hope we’re playing Providence,” said junior goalie Martin Ouellette, who finished with 31 saves. “It really doesn’t matter. We’re going to go out there and nothing’s going to stop us from taking the series.

“If we play like we played this weekend, we’ll go to the Garden.”

The Garden, in Boston, will play host to the Hockey East semifinals for the four teams advancing from the quarters.

New Hampshire (18-9-7, 13-8-6) left the ice in a bad kind of limbo. Having entered the weekend with a chance to gain the top seed, the Wildcats lost 4-3 Friday night and blew a pair of two-goal leads Saturday, leaving them unsure of whether they would even host a quarterfinal series.

“We didn’t lose the game, but now we have to sit and wait,” said UNH coach Dick Umile. “It’s disappointing that we have to depend on someone else for home ice.”

The Wildcats took a 2-0 lead into the final five minutes of the second period on fourth-line goals by Scott Pavelski and Maxim Gaudreault.

Joey Diamond got Maine on the scoreboard with the first of his two goals, cutting from right to left into the slot and unleashing a shot that trickled over the goal line after hitting New Hampshire goalie Casey DeSmith.

Less than a minute later UNH went ahead 3-1 when Grayson Downing tipped in a shot by Austin Block. Again Maine answered, with Adam Shemansky deflecting a shot taken from near the blue line by Klas Leidedrmark to make it 3-2 entering the third.

“We knew coming in that it was going to be an emotional game,” said Maine senior defenseman Mike Cornell. “They were fired up with the way things ended (in pushing and shoving behind the Maine net and no handshake line Friday night) and it was their Senior Night, too. So sometimes you have to weather the storm. Fortunately, we stuck with it and stayed confident.”

Ben Hutton sprung Diamond on a breakaway early in the third, and Diamond buried his own rebound to make it 3-3. The Black Bears went ahead 4-3 when Brice O’Connor fired a shot through traffic that deflected off a New Hampshire defender and was put away by freshman Will Merchant.

With Maine’s defensemen blocking shots (they took care of 24 Friday night and 15 Saturday) and Ouellette looking sharp in net, the lead appeared safe. At least, it did until Maine incurred two penalties.

The first, a stick-holding call on Leidermark, resulted in New Hampshire power play that, as it was winding down, left all five Maine skaters along with Ouellette piled in the crease, with the Wildcats fruitlessly attempting to swat in a rebound.

Having killed off that penalty, the Black Bears soon found themselves facing another power play when Diamond shoved Block in the back after the latter played keep-away with Diamond’s dropped stick.

“I can’t comment on that call at the end,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “You know, what are you going to do? I mean, let’s be honest. Ahh, I had better not say anything.”

It took New Hampshire only 40 seconds to score, on a screened slap shot from the blue line by Eric Knodel with Block, appropriately, obscuring Ouellette’s view.

“I saw he shot but I didn’t see the puck,” Ouellette said of the goal, with 3:38 remaining in regulation.

New Hampshire outshot Maine 2-1 in overtime, and DeSmith finished with 32 saves.

The Black Bears whistled their way out of the Whittemore Center, knowing they would return to the playoffs after a dismal 2-11-2 start to their season.

“We’ve come a long way since the start of the year,” Whitehead said. “We’ve fought through a lot of injuries and a lot of close games like this and we just want to keep playing. … Because at this point, we think we can play with anybody.”

Thanks to a successful weekend in Durham, on the ice of their biggest rival, the Black Bears will do just that.

 

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