The expectations were low but they seemed accurate when the University of Maine men’s hockey team got off to a 1-5 start.
The Black Bears were picked to finish eighth in Hockey East by the league’s coaches.
But the Bears have been a surprise, stringing together nine-game (7-0-2) and four-game (3-0-1) unbeaten streaks to help them survive a 2-6 finish and earn the fourth seed and home ice for the league quarterfinals for the first time since the 2005-2006 season.
The 16-15-3 Black Bears will try to earn their first trip to the Hockey East semifinals since that 2005-2006 season when they entertain 18-14-4 UMass Lowell, the fifth seed, in a best-of-three series beginning tonight at 7 at Alfond Arena.
Maine beat UML in the 2005-2006 quarterfinals to get to Boston’s TD Garden.
The River Hawks, who were picked to finish second, are the masters of the high breakout.
As soon as their defensemen obtain the puck in the defensive zone, their forwards fly out of the zone and await a long pass. Then they will either create a scoring chance off the rush or chip the puck smartly into the offensive zone and forecheck.
“They’re a veteran team that sticks to its system,” explained Maine junior center and captain Tanner House. “If you let them play their game, they’re pretty tough to play against.
“We have to make sure we stay on the defensive side of the puck and not have our forecheckers get caught deep [in the offensive zone] enabling Lowell to make one quick pass and attack our defensemen three-on-two,” said House.
Junior defenseman Josh Van Dyk said he and the rest of the Maine defense corps “can’t pinch in [at the offensive blue line] as much as we normally would. We’ll have to stay back. We’ll need to play strong team defense. And we can’t turn the puck over.”
“We need to keep it simple,” said Maine senior right wing Brett Carriere.
Sophomore defenseman Will O’Neill said the Bears need to get off to a good start “to get the fans into it and get excitement in the building.”
The Bears will also have to solve senior goalie Carter Hutton, who is not only fourth in the country in save percentage (.928) and sixth in goals-against average (2.06), he is also an exceptional puckhandler and distributor who makes it difficult for opponents to set up their forecheck.
“We have to be smart with our dump-ins,” said House. “We want to keep the puck away from [Hutton] as much as we can. We also have to drive the net and get traffic in front to take his eyes away.”
“We’d like to get him off his game. It would be nice to get a couple of quick ones on him,” said Van Dyk.
“We want to make [Hutton] uncomfortable,” said junior defenseman and assistant captain Jeff Dimmen. “We’ve got to dump the puck into the corners and make their defensemen go back and play the puck [instead of Hutton] and then we’ve got to get pressure on them.”
UML senior left wing Kory Falite has been a Black Bear nemesis with eight goals and seven assists in 12 career games.
“He’s a heck of a player. He always seems to score big goals for them so we need to keep an eye on him,” said Dimmen.
“I like playing up there,” said Falite. “It’s one of the better college hockey rinks around. It was built for college hockey.”
He added that the rink and the enthusiastic Maine fans “make it easy to get up for the games.”
“You won’t find a better atmosphere,” said Hutton, who expects a tough series.
“It’s going to be a tight battle,” predicted Hutton.
Maine will be without suspended starting goalie Scott Darling but the River Hawks expect senior Dave Wilson or freshman Shawn Sirman to play well.
“They’re Division I goalies and any goalie, one through three [on the depth chart], is going to be solid and capable of stealing a game,” said Hutton.
“They’re Division I goalies for a reason,” said Falite.
“It’s a non-factor,” said UML coach Blaise MacDonald. “The last time I checked, Darling wasn’t on the power play.”
Hutton and Falite said they will have to watch Maine’s top line of House between Brian Flynn and the nation’s top scorer, Gustav Nyquist.
“That’s one of the top lines in the league,” said Hutton.
“We have to keep an eye on Nyquist and make sure he doesn’t take the game over,” said Falite.
Shuttle buses available for fans
Shuttle buses will be available to accommodate fans attending the University of Maine-UMass Lowell Hockey East quarterfinal series this weekend. The Eastern Maine Sportsmen’s Show is also being held on campus at the Memorial Gym and field house. The shuttle bus will run Friday and Saturday from 4:30-10 p.m. between the Collins Center for the Arts parking lot, the Jenness lot and the main lobby of the Memorial Gym and field house. The Sportsmen’s Show will end at 4 p.m. on Sunday, opening up parking for the hockey game.