ORONO — The University of Maine men’s hockey team remembered what happened last year.
Fighting for an NCAA Tournament berth, the Black Bears finished fifth in Hockey East and had to visit fourth-seed Merrimack College for a best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series.
It’s deja vu with a different venue this season.
Instead of playing at Lawler Arena in North Andover, Mass., the teams will square off at Alfond Arena thanks to UMass’ 5-1 win over Merrimack on Friday and Maine’s 1-0 win over New Hampshire on Saturday.
That gave Maine the fourth seed and Merrimack the fifth seed.
They will begin their best-of-three series at 7 Friday night.
The stakes are the same.
Both teams probably need to win the series to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive.
Maine is tied for ninth in the Pairwise Rankings that emulate the NCAA tournament selection process while Merrimack is tied for 14th.
The five tournament champions receive automatic berths to the 16-team NCAA tournament and 11 others receive at-large berths based on criteria including overall record, strength of schedule and record against teams under consideration for the NCAA tournament.
“Since I’ve been here, they’ve given us a hard time,” said Maine junior defenseman and assistant captain Mike Cornell. “Having said that, I’d much rather play up here than at their place. It’s a completely different game up here than down there.”
Maine is 4-6-1 against Merrimack in Cornell’s three seasons but the Bears are 3-1 at home and 1-5-1 at Lawler Arena.
Merrimack snapped a 23-game winless drought at Alfond Arena (0-21-1) dating back to Nov. 14, 1997, with a season-opening 2-1 win over Maine on Oct. 7.
Merrimack’s home (6-4-3) and road (7-5-2) records in Hockey East play are essentially the same. However, Merrimack went 0-3-1 in its last four HE road games.
“We’re all fighting for our playoff lives right now,” said Maine junior right wing Matt Mangene. “Everyone knows what’s at stake. It’s going to be a battle. You can’t let up for one second or it could mean the end of your season.”
“One of our goals this year was to get home ice and put ourselves in good position to win the [Hockey East] tournament and to make the NCAAs,” said senior center and co-captain Brian Flynn. “So far, we’re in a pretty good spot but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Flynn said they know how important the series is when it comes to NCAA tournament ramifications, “but we can’t be worrying about those things.”
“We’ve been on the bubble or just in [the NCAA tournament based on the Pairwise Rankings] the last month or two so we know how to block that stuff out and just go play hockey,” said Flynn. “They have some things they do a little differently. The big thing is they’re a real strong defensive team with a real good goaltender [senior Joe Cannata]. I expect them to be low-scoring games and we know we have to buckle down defensively ourselves.”
Maine junior defenseman Nick Pryor said the Warriors effectively play a defense-oriented system and they don’t give up many scoring opportunities.
“So when we do get opportunities, we have to make sure we capitalize,” said Pryor.
Merrimack is the 11th stingiest team in Division I hockey, allowing just 2.26 goals per game.
Pryor said the win over New Hampshire proved to them that they can win a low-scoring game.
“When we buckle down, we can play well defensively,” said Pryor. “And [goalie Dan Sullivan] has been playing great so we have to keep going down the road we’re going.”
Alfond faithful turn out
Despite competing with state high school basketball championship games as well as regional hockey semifinals and having the game televised by the New England Sports Network, Saturday afternoon’s crowd of 4,898 to watch Maine and New Hampshire was the fifth largest of the season at Alfond Arena.
The Maine players aren’t the only ones who enjoy playing at Alfond Arena.
“It has been so much fun to play here [over the years],” said UNH senior right wing and assistant captain Stevie Moses. “I’ll certainly miss it. It’s been a blast.”
“Our fans are, without a doubt, the best in college hockey. There’s no comparison,” said Maine senior defenseman Ryan Hegarty, who was honored along with the five other seniors on Seniors Night.
Mangene earns CBS award
Mangene has been named the Defensive Player of the Year by the CBS College Sports Network.
It was announced during the Boston College-Vermont game on Saturday.
Mangene has played both right wing and defense for the Black Bears this season and is one of the team’s top penalty-killers.
He is the right wing on the team’s top checking line with Mark Anthoine and Stu Higgins.
If a defenseman has to leave a game because of injury or game misconduct penalty, Mangene moves back to fill in on the blue line.
The speedster from Miller Place, N.Y., is also the team’s fourth-leading scorer with 30 points on 14 goals and 16 assists in 34 games.
He is tied with Flynn for the lead in game-winning goals with four.
He also leads all Maine forwards in blocked shots with 18.