ORONO — Seniors Weekend is always memorable for a student-athlete.
But this Seniors Weekend for the University of Maine men’s hockey team is also pivotal.
The 16th-ranked Black Bears will entertain the No. 4 Merrimack College Warriors who are one of college hockey’s best stories.
The 21-5-4 Warriors, who had finished no better than seventh in Hockey East 15 times in 16 seasons before tying for sixth last year, are tied for fourth in the PairWise Rankings that emulate the NCAA Tournament selection process.
Maine is 14-10-6 and is tied for 20th in the Pairwise Rankings. Sixteen teams make the tournament: five conference tournament champs and 11 at-large teams.
Maine’s five seniors, who will be honored on Saturday night, know the magnitude of the weekend.
“It’s a huge weekend for us,” said defenseman Mike Banwell, who has played 104 career games and has 5 goals and 13 assists for 18 points. “We need to do everything we can to take some points from Merrimack and move up the PairWise.”
“We’re going to have to beat these kinds of teams if we’re going to go anywhere in the playoffs,” said center and captain Tanner House (132, 38-63-101).
“We couldn’t ask for a better team to play on Seniors Weekend,” said defenseman and assistant captain Jeff Dimmen (129, 24-38-62).
“If we can get a couple of wins, we’d be right back in the national picture,” said center Robby Dee (120, 29-38-67).
Defenseman Josh Van Dyk (134, 1-35-36) added that Merrimack is a great team.
“We have to come out and play as a team and play a full 60 minutes both nights,” he said.
The seniors will be trying to avoid being the first class since the 1986 class to never qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
They are 59-67-16 overall, 17-11-6 in their last 34 games dating back to last season.
They will always have a special place in the heart of Maine coach Tim Whitehead who pointed out that they were dealt a tough hand.
“They’ve been awesome. They have fought through a lot in their four years. It was tough timing for them to join our team because we had just lost a large senior class and (Hockey East Rookie of the Year) Teddy Purcell also left,” said Whitehead, who lost seven of his top 10 scorers off the 2006-2007 Frozen Four team.
“On the positive side, they got to play a lot right from the beginning and each one became an impact player for us in his own way,” Whitehead added. “In the last two years, we have re-established the culture we want in the locker room and on the ice. I’m very proud of them.”
Freshman left wing Mark Anthoine said the seniors made his transition easier.
“It’s going to be so tough not having them around as people, let alone as players,” he said. “They’re the nicest group of guys you could ever imagine.”
The five seniors said the four years have flown by; they’re pleased with how they’ve progressed and they have no regrets.
“We’ve had our ups and downs but it’s been a great experience,” said Dimmen.
“I’ve had a blast. You’d always like to have more points (as a player and as a team) but what I’ve learned here and the experience I’ve had have been amazing,” said Van Dyk. “I’ve met such a tight-knit group of people.”
Banwell added, “I’ve learned a lot being here with these guys. It has been awesome.”
Their career highlights vary.
Dimmen said playing Boston College in the Hockey East championship game (7-6 overtime loss) at the TD Bank Garden last year was “one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of or ever seen.”
Dee and House also listed the win over BU in the semifinals and the BC title game at the Garden as being a highlight.
“Just being part of such a great program, playing in front of our fans and hearing your name called out is a highlight. It’s a great feeling playing at home,” said House.
Van Dyk said “playing in all the different rinks in Hockey East and getting the chance to play against top prospects, including some who are already in the NHL” has been memorable.
Banwell will cherish some of the “big weekends” like the home sweep of North Dakota this season.
“There’s nothing better than putting together a big weekend against a good team with the fans behind us,” said Banwell. “Hopefully, the best is yet to come.”