The Maine and New Hampshire men’s hockey teams will be dealing with injuries to prominent players when the archrivals meet for this weekend’s crucial home-and-home Hockey East series as they begin their final stretch seeking a first-round bye and home ice for the league playoffs.
Maine will be without first-line right wing Steven Swavely (7 goals, 6 assists) and third-line center Stu Higgins (6-4), both of whom play in all situations. They are out with leg injuries.
UNH will be missing first-team All-American defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk (4-19) and second-line center Grayson Downing (9-7). They suffered ankle and shoulder injuries, respectively, against Union last Saturday night.
Between injuries and nagging bumps and bruises suffered by other players, coaches Dick Umile of UNH and Red Gendron of Maine will be challenged to revamp their lineups and get the most out of their players.
Umile said when key players are lost, the team’s top players need to elevate their games and hope the role players can handle more prominent roles.
“When Trevor got hurt, our captain, Eric Knodel, stepped up big time,” Umile said.
The teams will battle at 7:30 p.m. Friday night at the Whittemore Center in Durham, N.H. before bussing to Orono for Saturday’s 7 p.m. game at Alfond Arena.
This year, every team makes the Hockey East tournament with the top five teams earning first-round byes and the top four hosting best-of-three quarterfinal series. The teams that finish sixth through 11 will have to play a one-game elimination round.
Maine, 11-8-3 overall and 5-3-2 in league play, is currently sitting fourth with 12 points while UNH (13-12-1, 5-5-0) is sixth with 10 points.
One of Maine’s foremost challenges, according to Gendron, is to regain its defensive efficiency after allowing 10 goals in four periods against Boston College and the University of New Brunswick. Maine did shut out UNB over the final two periods to erase a 3-0 deficit and post the 4-3 exhibition win on Tuesday.
“We can’t afford to fall behind 3-0,” said Maine senior defenseman Brice O’Connor.
Maine will be completing a stretch of six games in 12 days and keeping the puck out of their net will be pivotal.
“UNH has some terrific offensive weapons. They have several defensemen who can make plays. They have great athletes,” said Gendron, whose Black Bears will also have to adapt to the Olympic-sized ice sheet with is 15 feet wider than Alfond Arena.
“It’s certainly something we have to be aware of. The wider the rink, the more important it is to defend the middle of the ice. You have to stay between the faceoff dots,” said Gendron.
The coaches are longtime friends and have the utmost respect for each other.
“We have a very good relationship. He’s a straight shooter. He tells it like it is. He’s a good man,” said Gendron. “He has over 500 wins (532-288-95). He’s a great coach and an even better human being.”
“Red is a good man and a good coach. He was a great selection,” said Umile.
The coaches enjoy the Maine-UNH rivalry.
“Our rivalry doesn’t take a backseat to anyone,” said Umile.
The rivalry has spawned a two-game set of nonleague games in addition to the league games beginning next year when the teams will play nonconference games in Portland and Manchester, N.H. to go with league games in Durham and Orono.
“It’s great for our fans in southern Maine and for the UNH fans in Manchester and it gives our players an opportunity to play in two pro rinks,” said Gendron.
Maine continues to be led by center Devin Shore (11-16), defenseman Ben Hutton (9-9), LW Connor Leen (3-15) and goalie Martin Ouellette (10-8-3, 2.04 goals-against average, .933 save percentage) while UNH features center Kevin Goumas (10-18), LW Nick Sorkin (13-14), defenseman Knodel (5-13) and goalie Casey DeSmith (11-10-0, 2.23, .920).