ORONO, Maine — Maine junior goalie Martin Ouellette acknowledged that there will be a lot of pressure on his shoulders in a crucial Hockey East series against archrival New Hampshire Friday and Saturday but he added that the “whole team is feeling that pressure” and it comes with the territory.
“Everyone has to contribute in their own way. That’s how you win games this time of year,” said Ouellette, who has started 24 of Maine’s last 25 games and has held opponents to two goals or less 14 times in those 24 starts.
“Before Christmas, no one expected us to make the playoffs,” he added. “We had just one or two wins. But we’ve picked it up and we’ve played real well against good teams. We beat [UMass] Lowell and BC twice [each] and had three close games with [Boston University].”
Maine had a pair of one-goal losses and a tie with BU.
Maine entered the Christmas break with a 1-7-2 Hockey East record but the Black Bears have gone 5-5-5 since then.
“We know Marty can handle the pressure,” said senior left wing Adam Shemansky. “He has been our backbone all year. He has been our best player. He has kept us in games if we’ve gone out and had a tough shift.”
The Black Bears boarded a Cyr bus late Thursday morning for their trip to Durham, N.H., for games against UNH at 7:30 p.m. Friday and at 4 p.m. Saturday.
The team stopped en route to practice at the University of Southern Maine Ice Arena in Gorham. Like the Whittemore Center, the USM Ice Arena has an Olympic-sized ice sheet (100 by 200 feet). Maine’s Alfond Arena is the traditional-sized 85 by 200.
Depending upon the outcome of their series and the series involving UMass and Merrimack (home-and-home) as well as Boston College and Vermont (both at UVM), the UNH games could represent the final games of the season for the Black Bears.
Maine is clinging to the eighth and final Hockey East playoff spot in the 10-team league, two points behind seventh-place Vermont and one ahead of ninth-place UMass.
The Black Bear players know they lose the tiebreaker to both Vermont (head-to-head UVM 2-0-1 vs. Maine) and UMass (8 league wins to Maine’s 6), so to avoid missing the playoffs for the second time in six seasons, Maine has to finish with more points than either Vermont or UMass.
Ouellette has never beaten UNH, going 0-3 against them.
“But that doesn’t matter at this point. It’s just a statistic. It’ll be a matter of who plays harder and who plays their systems better,” said Ouellette. “We’re probably going to need to play our best hockey of the year.”
Maine has lost its last nine games at the Whittemore Center, but junior right wing Mark Anthoine pointed out that “we’ve played well on big ice sheets and against good offensive teams this year. We have grown so much as a team. I have all the faith in the world in us. We have such a good, tight-knit group, I know we’re going to battle, no matter what.”
UNH is 12th among 59 teams in scoring, averaging 3.19 goals per game.
“We’re excited. We know we control our own destiny,” said senior right wing and tri-captain Joey Diamond.
Sophomore center Stu Higgins expects the practice at USM to be helpful.
“It’ll be huge for the power play. We’ll get used to the spacing. There’s a lot more room so you can stretch [the UNH penalty-killers] out more,” explained Higgins.
Higgins also said he and his underclass teammates want to extend the season of their seven seniors by making the playoffs.
“We love those guys. They’re a good group,” said Higgins.
UNH, which is fighting for first place, will honor its six seniors.
The two games will be telecast, with Friday’s game on NBC Sports (formerly Versus) and Saturday’s on NESN.