It’s appropriate that the University of Maine’s hockey fate will be decided by the University of New Hampshire this weekend.
In a wild, topsy-turvy season unlike any other in the history of Hockey East, Maine needs to match UMass’ point total to earn a playoff spot.
UMass plays a home-and-home set with Merrimack.
Maine is vying for the eighth and final playoff spot in Hockey East and has a one-point lead over UMass. However, UMass owns the tiebreaker (league wins 8-6).
The last time the Black Bears missed the Hockey East playoffs was in the 2007-2008 season. Ironically, it was UMass that claimed eighth place, two points ahead of ninth-place Maine.
New Hampshire has no shortage of incentives for sweeping the archrival Black Bears and extending its Whittemore Center winning streak over them to 11 games.
Let’s start with the fact UNH is one point behind UMass Lowell in the battle for first place. And UNH owns the tiebreaker vs. UML.
The Wildcats are just one point ahead of Boston College and Providence College and three ahead of fifth-place Boston University.
As improbable as it is, UNH could still finish fifth and have to go on the road for the Hockey East quarterfinals.
The rivalry has included two wins by Maine in the NCAA Tournament, including the 3-2 overtime loss in the 1999 NCAA championship game in Anaheim.
Maine fans who are hoping to get some help from Merrimack can be encouraged by the fact Merrimack has won eight of the last nine meetings with UMass.
Realistically, Maine needs two points from the series at UNH.
UMass will have a distinct advantage over Merrimack on its wider ice sheet at the Mullins Center and Merrimack will certainly have an edge in the cozier confines of Lawler Arena.
A split is probable.
So, can the Black Bears squeeze two points out of Durham?
Based on the regular season game in Orono, won convincingly by UNH 4-0 on Nov. 4; UNH’s nine straight Whittemore Center wins over Maine and statistical data, you would have to say it’s doubtful.
On paper, UNH should sweep.
UNH is 12th in the country in goals per game (3.19) while Maine is 58th among 59 teams (1.94). UNH is tied for the seventh stingiest team in college hockey (2.22 goals against) while Maine is 28th (2.68). UNH also has a decisive edge in power-play percentage (18.3-13.4 percent) and on the penalty kill (90.7-81.3).
Maine has a resurgent power play (12-for-44 over its last nine games) but UNH is the second-least penalized team in college hockey (9 PIM per game) so Maine probably won’t get many power play chances.
That being said, the rivalry is intense and it wouldn’t shock me if the two teams got embroiled in a penalty-fest, especially Saturday afternoon since they will be playing games less than 22 hours apart.
This has been an unusual year.
Maine snapped a nine-game winless streak at Boston College’s Conte Forum (0-8-1) with a sweep on Jan. 25-26.
Maine also went a dismal 2-9-6 at its Alfond Arena including a loss to Atlantic Hockey team Mercyhurst (5-2).
That is even stranger than Maine sweeping BC on the road.
Maine has played some of its best hockey on the road and its freshmen have never experienced defeat at the Whittemore Center. So they won’t feel the pressure or frustration the upperclassmen will.
Just when you get ready to count the Black Bears out, they rise up and grab a lifeline.
Maine is 1-2-2 in its last five games in which it trailed entering the third period. And one of those losses was the game against Boston University when Maine defenseman Mark Nemec’s dump-in for one last rush hit a stanchion and launched a game-winning 2-on-0 for BU.
Just when Maine appears ready to climb out of the depths of despair and solidify a playoff spot, they drop valuable points (3-0 loss at Vermont; 5-2 loss at UMass; 4-4 tie with Northeastern; 3-3 tie, 5-4 OT loss vs. BU).
My prediction is that Maine and UMass will wind up tied and UMass will earn the eighth spot.
Then the 2012-13 season will be remembered as the Year of the Stanchion.
But, if the Black Bears somehow get in, this year has just been wacky enough that they could find themselves getting to the Hockey East title game.