ORONO — The road to the Frozen Four will have some major speed bumps for the University of Maine men’s hockey team.
But at least the Black Bears will stay in New England and have the potential for a partisan Maine fan base.
That’s because The 23-13-3 Black Bears will face defending NCAA champion Minnesota-Duluth, 24-9-6, in Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. first-round game in the NCAA Tournament’s Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass.
Maine is the third seed while the Bulldogs are the second seed.
That game will follow the 4 p.m. opener between top seed Boston College, 29-10-1 and a 4-1 winner over Maine in Saturday night’s Hockey East championship game, and Atlantic Hockey Tournament winner Air Force, 21-10-7 and the fourth seed.
The winners will meet at 8 on Sunday night for the right to go to the Frozen Four at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on April 5-7.
It is unknown whether Black Bear Hobey Baker Award finalist Spencer Abbott, the nation’s leading scorer and Hockey East Player of the Year, will be available.
The senior left wing and assistant captain suffered a head injury 4:03 into the third period of Friday night’s 5-3 Hockey East semifinal win over Boston University and missed Saturday’s loss to BC. BU tied the game 3-3 with Abbott sprawled on the ice but Mark Anthoine scored the game-winner 3:40 later.
“Hopefully, he’ll be ready for the weekend,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “You learn with head injuries that you have to take it day by day. He felt a lot better today. That was encouraging.
“On the flip side, now the team has some experience without him in the lineup. We were able to get a victory on Friday night and, after a tough first period on Saturday, we rebounded well and gave BC a run for the money. The coaching staff was very proud of how the guys battled through that situation. They really competed hard. We’d love to have another opportunity to play BC if we can get past Duluth and they get past Air Force.”
Maine is making its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since the 2006-2007 season when the Black Bears reached the Frozen Four in St. Louis only to lose to Michigan State 4-2 in the semifinals.
Michigan State went on to beat Boston College 3-1 in the NCAA championship game.
The 2006-2007 NCAA Tournament appearance capped a run of nine straight seasons in the tourney.
“We’re excited,” said Maine senior center and co-captain Brian Flynn. “It’s the closest regional (to us) so, hopefully, we’ll continue to get a ton of support from our fans. We had a better turnout at the (TD) Garden than Boston University and Boston College (for the Hockey East semis and final) and that helped us out a lot.
“They’ve been loyal for my four years here. It’s awesome,” added Flynn.
The other regionals are in Bridgeport, Conn. (East), Green Bay, Wis. (Midwest) and St. Paul, Minn. (West).
Besides Maine and BC, two other Hockey East teams earned berths as Boston University will face Minnesota in St. Paul in its opener and UMass Lowell will take on Miami in Bridgeport.
“It’s going to be a great challenge but we’re looking forward to it,” said senior defenseman and co-captain Will O’Neill.
Flynn said they have a “big test right off the bat” but said when you reach the NCAA Tournament, every team is going to be a quality opponent.
“You’re going to have to play good teams to win the national championship. Duluth knows what it takes to win it,” added Flynn.
The NCAA Tournament appearance is particularly gratifying for the seniors, who came close in each of the past two seasons but couldn’t finish the deal.
Two years ago, the Black Bears needed to beat BC in the Hockey East championship game to earn the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament but lost a heart-breaker 7-6 in overtime after rallying from three two-goal deficits.
Last season, Maine was swept by Merrimack in their Hockey East quarterfinal series and that cost them a berth.
“This is why I came to Maine. I wanted the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament and to play in big games,” said Flynn. “It’s nice to get (the program) back to the tournament.”
O’Neill added, “This is great for the seniors and the young guys.”
Flynn said playing in pressure-packed games like the Hockey East semifinals and finals will be beneficial.
“I think we’ll be ready,” he said.
O’Neill concurred and pointed out that the team has been involved in a lot of challenging environments this season including a two-game series at the University of North Dakota, the Frozen Fenway outdoor game against New Hampshire in and playing a decisive game three at home against Merrimack in their quarterfinal series. Maine won game three 2-1.
“All those experiences will really help us,” said O’Neill.
Eight Black Bears played in their first Hockey East TD Garden games this past weekend: freshmen John Parker, Stu Higgins and Andrew Cerratani; sophomores Mark Anthoine, Jon Swavely, Brice O’Connor and Dan Sullivan and junior Nick Pryor.
Whitehead, O’Neill and Flynn felt the newcomers performed well on the big stage and the team must bottle the positives they took out of the weekend and stick to what has been successful for them during their impressive 20-7-2 stretch that followed a 3-6-1 start.
“Whether or not we have Spencer, we have to compete, work hard, keep getting great goaltending from (Sullivan) and play strong team defense,” said O’Neill.
The NCAA tourney field features 16 teams — five conference champions who earned automatic berths and 11 teams who received at-large berths, such as Maine.