ESTERO, Fla. — It was March 24 of this year.
The University of Maine men’s hockey team, making its first NCAA tournament appearance since the Black Bears reached the Frozen Four in the 2006-2007 season, had taken a well-deserved 2-0 lead over defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth in their first round game in the Northeast Regional at the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass.
But three second-period goals in a span of 6:41 gave the Bulldogs a 3-2 lead and they went on to post a 5-2 victory and end Maine’s season.
The Black Bears seek to avenge that loss Friday at 7:30 p.m. when the two teams square off in the 13th annual Florida College Classic at Germain Arena in Estero, Fla.
Maine, one of the co-hosts of the tournament, is 2-11-2 and looking to snap a four-game winless skein (0-2-2) while Minnesota-Duluth is 7-8-3.
The other co-host, Cornell (6-3-2), opens the tournament against 7-7-3 Ferris State, at 4 p.m.
The consolation game is Saturday at 4 p.m., with the title game to follow.
Maine is the defending champ and has won two of the previous three tourneys and five overall.
“We knew at the end of last season we were going to play them in this tournament,” said Maine senior right wing and tri-captain Joey Diamond. “There is definitely extra incentive. They ended our season.”
“It is definitely in a lot of guys’ minds,” said sophomore defenseman Jake Rutt.
Junior right wing Jon Swavely, who will return to the lineup after missing 12 games due to quadriceps surgery, said they have a lingering “bad taste in our mouths.”
“We could have won that game,” said Swavely.
The Florida College Classic is the only one of the seven holiday tournaments in which all four teams reached the NCAA Tournament last season. But the .443 winning percentage of the four teams is the worst among the seven tournaments.
“No one is having the year they were supposed to have,” said Maine senior center Kyle Beattie. “We’ve all been struggling, so this is a great opportunity to jump-start the second half.”
Beattie feels the Black Bears will have a little bit of an edge against the Bulldogs early because they have played in this tournament before and have a familiarity with the rink as well as the travel schedule.
“We know what it takes to win down there. That was one of the reasons we practiced on Christmas night,” said Diamond. “That extra practice will help get our legs under us.”
“I don’t think any other team practiced on Christmas night,” said Rutt.
Swavely, who suffered his injury blocking a shot in a 2-2 exhibition tie against the University of New Brunswick on Oct. 7, said he is excited to return.
“I’m not 100 percent. I’ve lost some weight and my leg is a little bit smaller than it was. But I feel good out there and I’m ready to go,” said Swavely.
Swavely said it was tough watching the team from the stands and feels his team just needs confidence to get untracked.
“It hasn’t been from a lack of effort,” said Swavely. “We just don’t believe we can win the game and last year we did. Just about every game has been close. We’ve got to start believing in ourselves. Once we do, [the wins] will take care of themselves.”
Maine has been in 10 games decided by one goal or less, including the last six, and it is 2-6-2 in those games.
The Black Bears have tightened up defensively, allowing just 12 goals in their last six games behind junior goalie Martin Ouellette and better defensive positioning and penalty-killing.
But goal-scoring and the power play continue to be problematic, as Maine is dead last in the country in goals per game (1.33) and second-to-last in power-play efficiency (7 percent).
“There’s nowhere to go but up in goal-scoring,” said Beattie. “We’ve improved in all those other areas. We’ve got to keep getting shots and doing the simple things that create goals. We’ve kept working on the power play. Hopefully, we’ll start getting the bounces to go our way.”
“Coach [Tim Whitehead] has mixed up the lines and things have looked really good in practice. We’ve been putting the puck in the net,” said Rutt. “I think the offense is going to click.”