They are two of the youngest teams in Hockey East and two of the biggest surprises in the league.
The University of Maine was picked to finish eighth in the coaches’ preseason poll, and Northeastern University was chosen to wind up in last place.
Instead, both are in the running for a top four-finish in the league standings, which would earn them a bye in the Hockey East single-elimination round (March 7-8) and home ice for a league best-of-three quarterfinal series (March 14-16).
The Black Bears and the Huskies will square off in a two-game set at Northeastern’s Matthews Arena in Boston on Friday and Saturday nights at 7 p.m.
The teams enter the series knowing they could finish as high as second or as low as eighth.
The top five teams receive first-round byes, and the top four will host a quarterfinal series. The Nos. 6-11 teams play a one-game elimination round March 7 or 8.
Maine (15-10-3, 9-5-3 HE) and Northeastern (17-10-3, 9-6-1) are also in the running for an NCAA tournament at-large berth. Northeastern is ninth in the Pairwise Rankings that mimic the NCAA postseason selection process, while Maine is tied for 11th with North Dakota and Vermont.
Second-place UMass Lowell has 22 points, Maine and New Hampshire have 20 each and Northeastern has 19, followed by Providence (16), Vermont (14) and Notre Dame (14).
All of those teams have four games left except UNH, which has two, and Notre Dame, which has three.
Six of Maine’s top eight point-producers are freshmen and sophomores, while seven of Northeastern’s leading eight scorers are first- or second-year players.
“They’re a really good offensive team,” said Maine coach Red Gendron. “They’re very good in transition, but they’re also a good grinding team.
“They have three good lines with a lot of skill,” he added.
That means his Black Bears will have to exhibit exceptional puck management skills and defensive integrity.
“If you turn the puck over, they’ll hurt you,” said Gendron, whose Bears have won four of their last five and have allowed six goals combined in those four wins. “And we also have to solve their goalie [Clay Witt].”
In addition to a battle of youth, it will also feature a matchup between two of the nation’s best goalies.
Maine senior Martin Ouellette is eighth in goals-against average (2.03) and save percentage (.933), while Northeastern junior Witt is 11th in GAA (2.07) but leads the nation with a .943 save percentage.
Ouellette is 2-0-2 with a 1.71 GAA and a .938 save percentage vs. Northeastern.
Maine is 6-1-3 in its last 10 meetings with Northeastern.
Sophomore center Devin Shore (12 goals, 23 assists) and sophomore defenseman Ben Hutton (11 & 12) continue to lead Maine in scoring. Hutton leads the nation’s defensemen in goals. Connor Leen (5 & 15), Mark Anthoine (7 & 10) and Cam Brown (4 & 13) are next, but Ryan Lomberg (10 & 5) will miss the Friday game after being suspended for one game by the league or an elbow to the head of Merrimack’s Dan Kolomatis last Saturday night.
Northeastern has been paced by Kevin Roy (16 & 20), Mike Szmatula (11 & 21) and Braden Pimm (16 & 12) along with Dalen Hedges (8 & 14) and John Stevens (6 & 13). Szmatula, Hedges and Stevens head up a freshman class that is the third highest scoring freshman class in the country (34 & 77).