ORONO, Maine — For the University of Maine’s four Massachusetts natives, getting a chance to play at the TD Banknorth Garden in Boston on Friday night is going to be special.
Maine takes on Boston University in their Hockey East semifinal at 8 after the Boston College-Vermont semi.
“It’s pretty funny. I talked to my folks earlier today and, last year, I went to the [Hockey East tournament] with a bunch of friends,” said freshman defenseman Mike Cornell of Franklin, Mass. “It’s neat to be going back [as a player]. I’ve never had a chance to play there. It should be pretty exciting. Every year at this time, you’ve got the college [hockey] buzz going on.”
“When I was 8 years old, I was a squirt and we played against Marblehead before a Bruins game at the Garden,” said sophomore defenseman Will O’Neill from Salem, Mass. “Then we got to go to the Bruins game for a certain price. It was fun.
“I know it sounds like a cliche but this is a dream come true,” added O’Neill. “I’ve gone to [Hockey East] tournaments numerous times. My dad [Bill] would bring me or I would go with some friends as I got older. It’s a really big deal. It’s an honor to be able to go there and we have a good enough team to be there and we’re just really excited to get down there.”
“I haven’t played in a legit game there but I played between periods at a Bruins game when I was real young,” said sophomore defenseman Ryan Hegarty of Arlington, Mass. “But it was nothing like this where there’s a lot on the line. It’ll be interesting to see. It’ll be a blast.”
Hegarty used to attend the Hockey East tournament, particularly when his cousin, Ned Havern, was playing for Boston College.
“That was crazy. The Beanpot [Tournament] sells a pretty good amount of tickets but I’ve never seen the Garden sold out with college fans like that,” added Hegarty.
“I’ve never had the chance to play there,” said sophomore left wing Brian Flynn from Lynnfield, Mass. “It’s something I’ve been dreaming about for a while so I’m really excited.”
Like his Bay State mates, he has attended several Hockey East tournament games there.
“The atmosphere is always great and there’s a lot of lines. There can be a ton of people there watching,” said Flynn.
Freshman center Matt Mangene grew up in Manorville, N.Y., but his father, David, is from North Reading, Mass.
“I’m a huge Bruins and Celtics fan. I can’t wait,” said Mangene.
The players expect to be nervous at the outset but aren’t going to be awestruck by the environment.
“I’m sure that [nervousness] will happen even for the older guys on the team. We need to work as hard as we can to get the nerves out. That first hit, that first shot, that first save will all help us,” said O’Neill.
“No matter how old you are, you all get caught up in it over the first few minutes,” said Hegarty. “We’ve got to keep things simple the first five minutes until we get the nerves out.”
It also wouldn’t surprise them if head coach Tim Whitehead devises a plan to relax them before the game.
“A lot of guys are growing facial hair for the playoffs so before the third Lowell game, the coaching staff came into the locker room with taped moustaches on,” said Hegarty. “They were keeping it light, keeping the guys laughing. It was great. Everyone realized it was just another game.
“[Whitehead] doesn’t want you to grip the stick too tight. He just wants you to go out and play the game like you always have been,” said Hegarty.
“[Whitehead] has actually done a really good job quietly keeping the guys pretty loose … kind of playing it like we’re the underdogs. We weren’t picked high. We weren’t supposed to be here. It’s good,” said Flynn.
Rival coaches respect Maine
The coaches of the other three teams aren’t surprised Maine is a semifinalist despite being picked eighth in the Hockey East coaches’ preseason poll.
“They can skate. They have one of the best first lines in college hockey [Flynn, Tanner House, Gustav Nyquist] and they have the best power play in college hockey,” said BU coach Jack Parker who added that senior Dave Wilson “stepped up” in place of the suspended Scott Darling and was outstanding.
“Just because he’s the back-up doesn’t mean he isn’t a good goalie,” said Parker. “If [BU starter] Kieran Millan couldn’t play, we would be very confident [backup] Grant Rollheiser could get the job done just like Wilson did.
“We saw Wilson in one game and he was terrific,” said Parker referring to a 14-save, 2-2 overtime tie on Feb. 14, 2009.
“Maine is very quick and has some high-end players in Nyquist, Flynn and [Jeff] Dimmen,” added BC coach Jerry York. “They play with a lot of gusto. They’re a dangerous opponent.”
“[Whitehead] has done an incredible job this year. They’ve got talent and he has found a way to get the most out of his team,” said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon.