When the University of Maine takes on archrival New Hampshire to open their best-of-three Hockey East first-round series on Friday night, the Black Bears will be relying on several first-year players in key roles.
Sixth-seeded UMaine (16-14-4 overall, 10-11-3 Hockey East) and No. 11 seed UNH (10-18-6, 5-14-5 HE) will play at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and at 4 p.m. Sunday, if necessary.
Defenseman Alexis Binner is among the Black Bear freshmen untested in the playoffs. He has registered one goal and seven assists in 32 games and has been a steady, reliable performer.
His plus-10 rating ties him with sophomore center Tim Doherty for second on the team behind fellow freshman defenseman Brady Keeper’s plus-13.
Binner is receiving more ice time at UMaine than he did last season with the United States Hockey League’s Green Bay Gamblers, where he played in 55 games (2 goals, 5 assists).
“Last year was tough,” admitted Binner, who turned 19 in December and is one of the youngest Black Bears. “I didn’t get much of an opportunity. But it’s in the past. Coach Red (Gendron) thinks highly of me. I was (verbally) committed here for three years. He knew what kind of player I was. That definitely helped.”
“He makes smart plays. He’s a good puck-moving defenseman,” said UMaine senior defenseman and co-captain Mark Hamilton, whose status for the series remains in doubt as he has missed the last six games with a concussion. “He’s also a great skater. He’s had a great year and I’m looking for him to be good in the playoffs as well.”
The native of Stocksund, Sweden, plays a simple, efficient game.
“He has been a crucial piece for us,” said sophomore left wing Mitch Fossier. “He is such a good skater in a big body (6-foot-3, 212 pounds). He uses his skating really well to recover from situations.”
Binner said he tries to get his shot off quickly rather than making a potentially risky extra play with the puck.
“I don’t try to overthink things or overhandle the puck,” said Binner. “I try to make the first available play.”
Junior defenseman and alternate captain Rob Michel said Binner has been exceptional and does all the little things well.
Binner credits the coaching staff, including volunteer assistant Brad Schuler, with helping him improve. He also is used on the second power-play unit and on the penalty kill.
Binner is looking forward to the UNH series.
“We don’t like them and they don’t like us. There’s going to be a great atmosphere,” said Binner.
Binner is among nine Black Bears who could make their playoff debuts this weekend. But the UMaine veterans aren’t concerned about about their inexperience.
“They’ve been huge impact players for us all year,” said Fossier. “We have full confidence in them.”
One of the key matchups will be UMaine freshman goalie Jeremy Swayman against UNH senior Daniel Tirone, who has 13 playoff games under his belt.
“I’m going to go out and have some fun,” Swayman said. “I know they’re going to be hungry around the net and I’ll be just as hungry to find the puck.”
“Tirone is a good goalie. He’s always played well against us,” said Hamilton. “But Jeremy has been great for us all year. He has stolen some games we shouldn’t have won.”
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