June 21, 2018
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UMaine men making life challenging as they seek Hockey East playoff berth

By Larry Mahoney, BDN Staff

ORONO — Prosperity.

The University of Maine men’s hockey team has found a way to avoid it this season.

However, the Black Bears still have some control over their own destiny heading into the final four games of the season.

Seventh-place Vermont leads Maine by three points and UMass’ 5-2 win over Maine on Saturday, following Maine’s 2-0 triumph over the Minutemen on Friday, leapfrogged UMass over Maine by one point for the eighth and final playoff berth. Last-place Northeastern, Maine’s opponent for a pair in Orono this weekend, is four points behind UMass.

“Our team hasn’t really taken an easy path all year,” said Maine senior defenseman and tri-captain Mark Nemec. “But we’re embracing the challenge ahead of us. We know it’s going to be tough, but this is a good opportunity for us coming home.”

But home hasn’t been kind to the Black Bears.

They are just 1-9-5 at Alfond Arena, although they are 1-1-2 in their last four home games.

“I think the guys have gotten a little more comfortable at home,” said Nemec.

“We’ve started to figure stuff out at home a little bit,” said junior defenseman Brice O’Connor. “We aren’t trying to put on a show or do fancy things. We’ve been sticking to the basics like chipping the puck out of our zone and chipping it into their zone.”

Nemec said the team knows “we can control our own destiny. We need to pick up as many points as we can.”

UMass finishes up with a two-game set at New Hampshire, where Maine will conclude with a two-game set in two weekends, and will then play a home-and-home set with Merrimack.

Vermont visits Boston University for two this weekend before hosting Boston College for a pair, and Northeastern finished up with a home-and-home against rival Boston University.

“We can’t look at everyone else’s schedule. We have to worry about ourselves first,” said O’Connor. “We have to stick to the little things, the basics. Team defense. And we have to stay out of the penalty box. Penalties have hurt us.”

There will be a lot of pressure on the Black Bears, but sophomore defenseman Jake Rutt quoted a statement from Phoenix Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

“He said pressure is a privilege and we have to treat it as a privilege,” said Rutt. “Hockey is still a 60-minute game. We have to pay attention to detail and get the job done.”

Scarborough’s Rutt has been on a nice roll of late with two goals and five assists over his last six games.

All but one assist have come on the power play as he mans the point on the top power-play unit.

“I’ve been fortunate,” said Rutt. “I’ve been getting the puck at the point and the guys in the background have been doing all the dirty work [making his point production possible]. [Ryan] Lomberg and [Steven] Swavely have been doing very well at the net front and we’ve had good puck movement up top with Joey [Diamond], [Devin] Shore and [Ben] Hutton. We’ve had real good puck movement. We’re keeping it simple, Lomberg and Swavely have been taking the goalie’s eyes away and we’ve been getting pucks through.”

Maine has scored at least one power-play goal in six of its last seven games, going 9 for 34 (26.5 percent).

Beattie could return

Maine coach Tim Whitehead said senior defenseman Nick Pryor (concussion) and sophomore winger Connor Leen (Crohn’s disease) will miss this weekend’s series against Northeastern.

However, senior center Kyle Beattie, who has missed the last six games after suffering his third concussion of the season, could return. He has been skating but wasn’t scheduled to have contact until Wednesday.

Senior right wing and leading goal scorer Diamond is questionable with a problematic back.

Logjam at the top

There is certainly plenty of drama at the bottom of the Hockey East standings, but it pales in comparison to the top of the standings.

Following UMass Lowell’s 4-2 win over Boston College and Boston University’s 5-2 win over Merrimack on Tuesday, the top six teams in the league are separated by two points and there is a four-way tie for first involving Boston College, UMass Lowell, New Hampshire and Providence. Merrimack trails by one point and BU by two.

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