Which Maine hockey team will show up for the playoffs?

Posted March 01, 2011, at 6:09 p.m.
Last modified March 01, 2011, at 8:17 p.m.

Is it really March?

You are a University of Maine hockey fan and, after watching the Black Bears dismantle Merrimack College’s fourth-ranked Warriors last weekend, 4-0 and 7-1, you’re wondering where this team has been all year.

You want to know who was wearing the Maine jerseys three weekends ago when lowly Vermont came to Orono and dealt the desperate Black Bears a 7-2 thrashing.

Since that game, Maine has won five straight and outscored its opponents 22-3.

That’s the nature of sports.

Merrimack beat Maine 7-1 in North Andover, Mass., on Jan. 8.

Ultimately, Maine’s fate will be decided in the postseason.

The goal, as always, is the NCAA Tournament. Once you get there, you have a legitimate chance to win the national championship, especially in a goalie-dominated sport like hockey. Anything can happen in a single-elimination format.

We have seen previous glimpses of this past weekend’s team: two wins over North Dakota (7-3, 4-2) and a convincing 4-1 victory over Boston College, the nation’s top two ranked teams.

Like the Merrimack wins, they came at the University of Maine’s Alfond Arena, where the Bears enjoy a decided home-ice, home-crowd advantage.

But so did the loss to Vermont and disastrous 4-3 setbacks to New Hampshire (overtime) and Boston University in which they squandered 3-1 leads.

In all likelihood, Maine will be the fifth seed for the Hockey East Tournament and have to go to Boston University or Merrimack for a best-of-three quarterfinal series in two weekends.

The positive is that those two teams are pointworthy in the PairWise Rankings that emulate the NCAA Tournament selection process.

So if Maine can sweep a hard-luck Massachusetts team on the road this weekend — UMass is 6-20-5 but has lost nine one-goal games, including four in a row — and win the quarterfinal series, that will put the Bears back in the PairWise picture, and a semifinal win could earn them an NCAA bid without having to win the Hockey East tourney.

That would give them 21 wins.

Maine must follow the most recent blueprint for success: simplicity and thorough, two-way tenacity.

What that means is don’t try to be fancy with the puck in the danger zones: the offensive blue line and the neutral zone. If you don’t have a play, dump it into the offensive zone and set up your defensive scheme.

The Black Bears have finally found a legitimate No. 1 goaltender in freshman Dan Sullivan and he has supplied them with the most consistent stretch of reliable goaltending they’ve received all season.

He will be the first to admit that his teammates have made his job easier for him.

That trend must continue. The net-front coverage has to be consistent.

A team plays much better when it has confidence in its goaltender.

Maine is primarily a finesse team, but even the highly skilled players have to play with grit and win loose pucks.

That is when Maine is at its best.

Goal-scoring won’t be easy to come by in the playoffs.

But Maine now has a red-hot top line of Tanner House, Brian Flynn and Gustav Nyquist; the production of second- and third-liners Spencer Abbott, Robby Dee, Joey Diamond and a vastly improved Kyle Beattie. Those factors — along with Matt Mangene’s offense-generating speed, a recent goal surge by the defense corps (six goals in five games) and a resurgent power play — should enable Maine to score at least three goals per game.

Then its fans would have an enjoyable March.

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