ORONO — The five seniors on the University of Maine men’s hockey team are looking to avoid a dubious distinction this season.
If they don’t make the NCAA Tournament, they would be the first class that failed to qualify for an NCAA Tournament berth in its four years during the Division I era, since the freshman class in 1982-83.
Senior centers Tanner House and Robby Dee and defensemen Mike Banwell, Josh Van Dyk and Jeff Dimmen are confident this team can return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2006-2007 season.
But it won’t come easy.
“We’re certainly hoping to put together a good run this year,” said Banwell. “We’re feeling pretty good about our team. We’re very similar to the way we were last year except everyone is a year more experienced. We’re all looking forward to the season, especially the seniors.”
Maine opens the season with an exhibition game against Canadian school Acadia University on Oct. 3 at 4 p.m. before hosting UMass Lowell and the University of Connecticut the following weekend.
Dee said it’s a big year for the team.
“We’re really excited about it. We should have a good team. We’ve got a lot of guys back,” he said. “We have a really good chance at making [the NCAA Tournament]. We have all the tools: The forwards and the defense and all the goalies are looking really good, too.”
The Bears had a good bounce-back year last season after a pair of dismal 13-win campaigns.
They finished 19-17-3 and took eventual NCAA champion Boston College into overtime in the Hockey East championship game before losing 7-6. The Bears had to win the tourney to earn the automatic NCAA berth. They ousted UMass Lowell in three games in their Hockey East best-of-three quarterfinal series and then eliminated defending national champ Boston University 5-2 in the semifinals.
“We want to build off our confidence from last year,” said captain House. “Most of the guys got a sense of what it takes to win. Guys were sacrificing for each other and making little plays and stuff like that.
“So we have to make sure we stick to the details. Everyone has to buy into the same system and work together as a team.”
Maine returns its top seven scorers and 11 of its top 12. The Bears have three defensemen who played in at least 38 of the 39 games a year ago and four others who appeared in at least 23 games. They have nine of the 10 players who played on the two power-play units that led the nation in efficiency (27.7 percent). However, they will be inexperienced in net after Dave Wilson graduated and Scott Darling decided to leave the team and begin his pro career with the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes.
Darling, who would have been a junior this fall, had been suspended for the third time in his career before the playoffs.
The expectations are high and those expectations are often accompanied by added pressure.
The seniors acknowledged that, but they won’t let it become a detriment.
Maine has been picked seventh in the country in the College Hockey News preseason poll and ninth in the Sporting News poll.
“We knew expectations would be higher for us this year,” said House. “But we aren’t going to look too much into that. Some teams in the past have been picked high in the preseason and didn’t even make [the NCAA Tournament] and then you have some Cinderella stories.”
Van Dyk said the team wants to set the bar high.
“There’s a lot of good history [of success] here,” said Van Dyk. “We want to make it to the national tournament. We want to put pressure on ourselves. It’ll make us play better.”
Dee doesn’t think the team has too much pressure on it.
“We’ve been here for three years. We know what has to be done and what it takes to be a good team,” he said, adding their strong finish provided them with extra motivation for this season.
“We can definitely build off that. We showed we can play with anybody in the country,” said Dee.
“We definitely gained confidence last year,” he said. “It lifted everybody up for the summer and everybody came back in good shape, full of confidence and ready to work this year.”
He said the team needs to work hard every day and “take what comes to us. We don’t want to get too high or too low during the season.”
Dimmen also said the Bears need to “get back to the defensive aspect of the game.”
“We have tons of scoring potential and offensively gifted players. But we need to rally around our young goalies and keep the puck out of our net first,” he said.