ORONO, Maine — There are only seven points separating second place and eighth place in the Hockey East standings.
The University of Maine Black Bears are fifth with 17 points, one point behind fourth-place UMass Lowell and three ahead of sixth-place Vermont and Boston University.
Boston College and UMass are tied for second with 20 points, five behind league leader New Hampshire.
Maine and Vermont have each played 15 league games; UMass Lowell and New Hampshire have played 16 and BC, UMass, BU and Northeastern have all played 17.
Maine visits Vermont for a pair this weekend as the Black Bears will finish the season with six two-game series, three on the road (Vermont, Boston University and Merrimack) and three at home (New Hampshire, UMass Lowell and UMass).
The Maine players have their sights set on earning home ice for the Hockey East quarterfinals. The top four teams earn home ice.
The Bears haven’t finished in the top four since they were third in 2005-2006. That season marked the eighth straight year they had earned home ice.
“Finishing in the top four and earning home ice would be huge, especially with our fans,” said sophomore defenseman Ryan Hegarty.
Maine is 7-2-1 at Alfond Arena including four consecutive wins, a five-game unbeaten streak (4-0-1) and a 7-1-1 mark in its last nine home games.
“It’s definitely a realistic goal,” said senior right wing David deKastrozza.
“That was our goal from the start of the year,” said senior center and captain Tanner House. “The biggest thing for us is to stick together as a team, realize what we did [successfully] in the first half and do those little things … like working hard every game. We’ve got to outwork teams.
“Playing a full 60-minute game will be huge for us and we have to do that consistently game in and game out, especially with two-game weekends. We have to be ready to go the full 120 minutes every weekend,” he added.
“We’ve got to really concentrate on team defense and on protecting our goalies,” said junior defenseman and assistant captain Jeff Dimmen. “[The goalies] always give us a chance to succeed and we’ve got to help them succeed.”
“We have to make sure we bubble around in front of our net, clear second rebound chances and watch the back door,” said House.
Maine is only 39th nationally in team defense (3.14 goals per game) .
“We have to manage the puck well,” said Dimmen. “We have to get it in deep [into the offensive zone], put pressure on their defensemen and make them come the whole way up the ice. We have to bring a consistent effort every night and shape up our penalty-killing a little bit. The penalty-killing hasn’t been where we want it to be and if we can get it going, it could really help us.”
Maine’s penalty-killing is at 76.8 percent, leaving Maine outside the top 40 in the nation.
“Our penalty-killing has to be more consistent,” agreed House. “Some nights we do really well, other nights we let a few up. “
Maine has given up at least one power-play goal in seven of its last eight games and has surrendered eight in the last 24 chances over five games.
Maine is fourth in the country in goals per game (3.55) and continues to lead the nation in power-play percentage (27.6 percent) despite a current four-game 2-for-17 slump.
“This would be the best time for our power play and penalty-killing to peak,” said Hegarty.
One of the bright spots in last week’s exhibition wins over New Brunswick (4-1) and the U.S. Under-18 team (4-0) was the play of backup goalies Dave Wilson (20 saves vs., UNB) and Shawn Sirman (33 saves vs. the Under-18s).
Injured starting goalie Scott Darling is expected back for the Vermont series.
“They both played really well. That will give them a lot of confidence and it gives us confidence knowing that if Scott’s out, they can go in and we can still win,” said House.