It’s pretty simple.
If the University of Maine’s men’s hockey team is going to make the NCAA Division I Tournament for the first time in four years, the first step is their Hockey East quarterfinal series against Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., on Friday, Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday. The games will start at 7:30.
The fifth-seeded Black Bears, 17-10-7 overall and 14-8-5 in Hockey East, are currently tied for 18th in the PairWise Rankings that mimic the NCAA Tournament selection process. Fourth seed Merrimack, 22-8-4 and 16-8-3, is eighth in the PairWise and appears to be in good position to reach the NCAA Tournament even if it loses to Maine.
Maine could make significant strides in the PairWise if it can win the series against Merrimack although the Bears will still probably have to at least win their semifinal if not the tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament.
One of the reasons the Bears finished fifth instead of second — where they were selected by the league’s coaches in the preseason poll — is because they went 0-5-1 on the road against the teams that finished ahead of them in the standings: Boston College (0-2), New Hampshire (0-2), Boston University (0-0-1) and Merrimack (0-1).
Maine lost its only game at Merrimack 7-1 on Jan. 8.
“We aren’t looking into the past right now,” said Maine senior center and captain Tanner House. “We’re excited to get down there. We’ve got to play our best. It’s going to be a physical series, especially in a small rink like theirs. They’ve got some big, physical defensemen. They’re a very hard-working team. We’re expecting a battle,” added House.
Three of Merrimack’s defensemen stand at least 6-foot-2 and weigh at least 210 pounds.
Maine avenged the 7-1 loss with a 4-0, 7-1 sweep two weekends ago.
But the Warriors were without sophomore center and French Olympian Stephane Da Costa, their leading scorer and the Hockey East Rookie of the Year a year ago. He returned from a knee injury last Friday and had a goal and two assists in a 6-1 win over Providence. That win clinched home ice for the Warriors so Da Costa sat out Saturday night’s 5-3 loss to Providence.
“It’s going to be a great series,” predicted Maine sophomore right wing Joey Diamond. “They’re a great team and they play very well in their building. We’re going to have to grind it out. It’s going to be one of those (types of) series. There are going to be a lot of bumps and bruises. We know that going into it and we’ll be prepared.”
Merrimack is 12-2-1 at its Lawler Arena.
“That sweep gave us a little bit of confidence. We know we can hang with them and be successful,” said Maine sophomore defenseman Mike Cornell. “At the same time, they’re a different team down there. Da Costa’s resume speaks for itself. But we’re definitely chomping at the bit to get down there.”
Maine junior right wing Gustav Nyquist, added, “This is the best time of year. I think everyone in the locker room feels that way. It’s going to be a good series. They like to play physical but we won’t back down, obviously. We have a lot of tough guys in our locker room.”
When Maine swept Merrimack, the two teams combined for 306 penalty minutes. Merrimack is the nation’s most penalized team (21.1 penalty minutes per game) and Maine is fifth (17.9).
Van Dyk on a scoring tear
Maine senior defenseman Josh Van Dyk is experiencing the best offensive stretch of his career with three goals and five assists in his last four games.
“It’s working right now. Pucks are going in so I’m happy with it,” said Van Dyk.
“He has been tremendous,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “He has been our most consistent defenseman this season and he has taken his game to an even higher level the last four weeks. He has great poise under pressure. He plays great defense without taking penalties. He’s tough as nails and will take a hit to make a play.”
House added, “He’s getting some bounces right now which he’s earned. He’s always been good. It’s nice seeing him get on the scoreboard a little more.”
Beattie gets visit from brother
Maine sophomore right wing Kyle Beattie has had a chance to spend some time with his brother, Travis, who flew in from California to watch him play Saturday night at UMass and is spending a few days in Orono.
Twenty-three-year-old Travis Beattie is in the Marine Corps stationed at the Twentynine Palms base in Califorina and will be leaving in a few weeks for his second deployment to Afghanistan. He was a sniper and now he’s a squadron leader, accoring to Kyle.
“That was the first time he had seen me play (live) in college,” said Kyle. “It’s pretty cool. It’s nice to have him up here.”