The University of Maine men’s hockey team squandered a glorious opportunity to move closer to clinching a valuable home ice berth for Hockey East’s best-of-three quarterfinal round when the University of Massachusetts upset the Black Bears 4-1 Saturday night at Alfond Arena.
Maine had raced out to a 6-0 lead en route to a 7-3 win over the Minutemen on Friday night.
Maine currently occupies the fourth and final home-ice berth, two points ahead of Merrimack.
Maine is one point behind third-place Boston University, two behind UMass Lowell and three behind league leader Boston College.
The Black Bears have played one more game than the other four.
Maine will travel to ninth-place Northeastern for a pair of games this weekend before hosting New Hampshire on Saturday, March 3, in the season finale.
The game with New Hampshire has been switched from a 7 p.m. start to a 4 p.m. face-off because the New England Sports Network plans to televise the game.
BU travels to last-place Vermont for a pair this weekend; Boston College has a home-and-home series with sixth-place Providence; UMass Lowell and Merrimack play a home-and-home set and eighth-place UMass hosts seventh-place New Hampshire for two.
Maine coach Tim Whitehead and his Black Bears watched the videotape of Saturday’s lackluster performance on Monday afternoon before closing the book on the loss.
“At this point, we just have to look forward,” said junior defenseman and assistant captain Mike Cornell. “We’ll take what we can from Saturday night. It wasn’t our best effort. We have to focus on Friday night and try to get those two points back.”
Junior right wing Matt Mangene said the team has “to play a full game, not just 20 or 40 minutes.”
“It happens sometimes. The pucks were going in easy Friday night. Saturday was a different story,” added Mangene. “We’ve got to learn to get the pucks to the net and grind in the dirty areas [in front of the net]. We didn’t do that Saturday.”
Junior defenseman Nick Pryor concurred.
“Maybe we thought it was going to come easy on Saturday,” speculated Nick Pryor. “We got away from the little things we’d been doing well all year. For the defensemen, that means breaking the puck out to the forwards; keeping tight gaps [with the forwards] and playing well defensively. For the forwards, it means getting the puck out of our zone, getting it deep in their zone and applying pressure to try to force their defense into turnovers.”
Whitehead said it’s a long season and every team is going to have games such as Saturday night’s, which snapped a six-game Alfond Arena winning streak.
“It was just bad timing,” he said. “We have to resist the temptation to look back and say what if [we had won]. We need to get closure on it and move on.
“It was a good lesson relearned,” added Whitehead. “This team has done a good job fighting through adversity all year. It was disappointing that we didn’t find a way to win Saturday.
“The more consistent we are executing the game plan, the more successful we’re going to be. It’s more crucial to execute it now because there’s a slimmer margin of error.”
Maine’s 22 shots on goal Saturday was its lowest total since it mustered 20 in a 6-4 win at Vermont on Dec. 2 and, according to Whitehead, that epitomized his team’s inability to get pucks to the net as the players tried to do too much on their own.
He knows his team will be severely tested by a desperate Northeastern team this weekend.
“We know the challenge ahead and we’re going to have to rise up. We’re looking forward to it,” he said.
Maine is still tied for eighth in the Pairwise Rankings with Minnesota. The Pairwise Rankings mimic the NCAA Tournament selection process. Maine moved up to 10th from 11th in the USCHO poll.