The University of Maine men’s hockey team caused its own predicament.
By losing its last three regular-season games, including just its second and third home losses of the season to Providence College two weekends ago, the Black Bears fell from a potential second-place finish in Hockey East to sixth. They also had their at-large aspirations to the NCAA Tournament all but quashed.
Instead of having the weekend off, which was the case for the top five seeds, Maine had to play a single-elimination first-round game and the Black Bears had to survive a dogfight against a gritty and hardworking Merrimack College team on Saturday night.
Maine’s 2-0 victory, which snapped a four-game winless streak (0-3-1), now sends the Black Bears to No. 3 Providence College for a best-of-three quarterfinal series Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The Maine players said there will be added motivation when they take the ice at Schneider Arena.
They know the Friars made life more difficult for them in the league playoffs and also put them in the difficult position of probably having to win the Hockey East tournament to earn a berth to the NCAA Tournament.
The Hockey East tournament champ and the winners of the other five conference tournaments earn automatic berths to the 16-team NCAA Tournament. That leaves 10 at-large berths.
Maine is a distant 22nd in the Pairwise Rankings, which mimic the NCAA Tournament selection process. Providence is 19-9-6 and is tied for 11th in the Pairwise Rankings so the Friars could be sweating out an NCAA berth if they lose the series to Maine.
“I’m very anxious to play Providence. And I’ll leave it at that,” said Maine senior center Jon Swavely.
Sophomore center Devin Shore said they are looking forward to having the chance to “get some payback.”
“They’re a great team and we’re going into their barn. It’s going to be a tough battle but we’re excited for the opportunity,” he said.
“They swept us at home and we hadn’t lost many games at home. We want to win a couple of games at their place, knock them out of the playoffs and go to the [semifinals]. That’s our goal,” said senior goalie Martin Ouellette.
Maine coach Red Gendron said the Friars are similar to his team.
“They’re a speed team, a hardworking team, a gritty team,” he said. “Credit to them, they took those two games from us two weekends ago.
“We’ve earned the opportunity to play them again and that’s all I have to say about that,” Gendron added.
He downplayed the revenge angle.
“Our motivation is to keep the season alive. I don’t care if we’re playing the Chicago Blackhawks. We want to keep playing,” stated Gendron.
Statistically, the two teams are remarkably even.
Both are averaging 3.0 goals per game, tied for 22nd in the nation. Maine is 12th in goals-against average (2.30) and Providence is 13th (2.32).
They are two of the least penalized teams in the country: Maine is 53rd among 59 teams (9.6) and Providence is 46th (10.3). Maine’s power play is 37th (16.7 percent) compared with Providence’s 53rd (12.9), and Providence is better on the penalty kill (86.7), sixth to Maine’s 17th (84.1).
Merrimack win boosts confidence
The Maine players said there were a lot of positives gained from the win over Merrimack, with the highlight being the defensive performance.
Ouellette made 29 saves and his mates blocked 12 shots and had a 25-9 edge in Grade-A (high-percentage) scoring attempts over the final two periods.
“We focused on blocking shots last week and it was pretty evident. Our defensemen did a great job getting in the [shooting] lanes,” said senior left wing Mark Anthoine.
“It gave us something to build on,” said Gendron. “We needed a signature game. You rarely find a team that plays a perfect game but we got contributions from virtually everybody in the lineup. That’s what we’re going to need if we’re going to have success at Providence.”
Maine’s last 11 games have been decided by two goals or fewer and Gendron often has shortened his bench in the third period, playing three lines instead of four and, in some cases, five defensemen instead of six.
But he rolled all four lines until the last eight minutes of the Merrimack game when he went to three lines. He played four lines for most of the game for three reasons.
First, to avoid wearing out his top players who saw extra ice time in the first period due to five penalties being called on the two teams. Second, his team had a 1-0 lead so “I didn’t have to push the panic button.”
“Third, and most importantly, all of our lines were playing well. They were all getting scoring chances and not giving any up. So why would I need to shorten the bench?” said Gendron.
“We focused on doing the little things. Everyone was dialed in,” Swavely said.
“Everyone was rolling. We were playing pretty consistently, pretty hard all night. It’s really encouraging when all four lines and all six ‘D’ are going. It was a lot of fun,” said Shore.
The players also said it was beneficial for the freshmen to get their first exposure to playoff hockey.
“It was a pretty intense atmosphere. The younger guys now have a taste of what it’s like and how hard it’s going to be. That wasn’t an easy game by any means. Now they know what they’re up against,” said Swavely.