The 2017-2018 University of Maine men’s hockey team finally gave the Alfond Arena faithful something to cheer about.

The Black Bears were picked to finish last in the two preseason polls but wound up sixth and then swept archrival the University of New Hampshire 4-1 and 3-2 in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs in Orono to earn a berth in the quarterfinals.

UMaine was swept in the quarterfinals by third seed Providence College 4-3 and 3-2 over the weekend.

But the Black Bears made significant inroads with a youthful team that featured 13 freshmen and sophomores among the 19 who played in Saturday’s finale.

This team was better in all areas than any of fifth-year head coach Red Gendron’s first four teams.

And, depending upon early departures, the nucleus is in place to make a run for the top four in Hockey East next season and the first NCAA tournament berth since the 2012 season. That was also the last time UMaine reached the Hockey East semifinals.

It is important to point out that only two of UMaine’s 18 wins (18-16-4, 10-11-3 in Hockey East) came over teams that finished .500 or better. Those nine teams went a combined 115-184-34. Only Boston University (19-13-4) finished above .500.

The Black Bears were the only team among the bottom eight seeds in the league that didn’t earn at least a tie against one of the top three seeds: Boston College, Northeastern and Providence College.

UMaine went 0-7 against them during the regular season before losing two more to Providence in the quarterfinals.

Gendron has one more year left on his contract and deserves a contract extension although it shouldn’t be a long-term one. One year, two at the most.

Remember, the Black Bears had gone 49-82-17 in his previous four years (27-50-9 HE).

If Gendron can continue to elevate the program next season, then the UMaine administration can offer him a three-year deal after the season. But there’s no guarantee that’s going to happen.

Even though this was the most resilient of Gendron’s teams, going 9-8-1 on the road after ending a 23-game winless stretch away from home (0-19-4), there were certainly some puzzling trends.

In their last five losses, UMaine was outscored 8-3 in the first period and was outshot 72-41.

On Saturday night, facing elimination and needing to play with a sense of urgency, the Black Bears were outshot 18-5 in the first period and fell behind 3-0.

They scored two early second-period goals but never got the equalizer and could only muster four third-period shots to Providence’s 13. Sluggish starts occurred with alarming regularity.

UMaine will lose just four players to graduation and has four coming in.

Speedy left winger Nolan Vesey was tied for third on the team in points with 25 (11 goals, 14 assists) and scored at least 10 goals in three of his four seasons. He concluded his career with 39 goals and 43 assists in 145 games. Alternate captain Cedric Lacroix, who missed the Providence playoff series with a sprained ankle, was a gritty checking-line center and effective penalty-killer, and co-captain Mark Hamilton was a hard-nosed defenseman who was among the nation’s top shot-blockers. Senior forward Malcolm Hayes didn’t get into a game.

Lacroix wound up with six goals and five assists this season and 21 & 19 in 145 career games while Hamilton, who missed 13 games due to a concussion, had an assist in 25 games and had 3 & 23 in 135 career games.

UMaine returns all of its defensemen, except Hamilton, while 11 of its top 12 scorers also return along with goalie Jeremy Swayman, who had an impressive freshman year.

NHL scouts have been eyeing junior defenseman Rob Michel and freshman blue liner Brady Keeper, but Michel would like to finish his electrical engineering degree and Keeper could use at least another year of seasoning at the college level.

Sophomore Mitch Fossier, UMaine’s top point-getter (12 goals, 22 assists), is developing into one of the league’s best forwards and is fifth in the league in scoring.

Sophomore co-captain Chase Pearson (7 & 20) was the No. 2 point-producer although he scored seven fewer goals than last season. His overall game improved and he was a quality leader.

Freshman Eduards Tralmaks (11 & 14) was a quality power forward who played on the top line with Fossier and Pearson. Transfer centers Tim Doherty (11 & 12), a sophomore, and Canon Pieper (4 & 8), a senior with another year of eligibility, gave UMaine a strong presence in the middle of the ice.

Swift-skating junior RW Brendan Robbins had a breakthrough season (11 & 10) after scoring 10 goals in his first two seasons combined. Freshman Emil Westerlund (7 & 6) and sophomores Patrick Shea (5 & 9), Ryan Smith (4 & 2) and Peter Housakos (3 & 2) had decent seasons and should be better next year as should junior Danny Perez (2 & 2).

Freshmen Adrian Holesinksy and Jack Quinlivan and sophomore Jake Pappalardo saw limited playing time and UMaine will be getting two potential goal scorers in incoming freshmen Jake Schmidt-Svejstrup and Adam Dawe, who have each scored 22 goals so far during their United States Junior Hockey League seasons.

Freshman Kevin Hock didn’t get into a game but could vie for playing time.

The defense corps was noticeably better and much more mobile than any of Gendron’s previous groups and was also productive offensively with 23 goals and 58 assists. Keeper (6 & 16) averaged 0.59 points per game, ninth among the nation’s freshman defensemen.

Sophomore Patrick Holway (6 & 13), who missed the Providence series due to injury, Michel (5 & 12), freshmen Alexis Binner (1 & 8) and Veli-Matti Tiuraniemi (3 & 5) and junior Keith Muehlbauer (2 & 1) had good campaigns and junior Sam Becker (0 & 2) appeared in six games. Sophomore Oliver Herner and freshman Cam Spicer didn’t get into any games but could crack the lineup next season.

UMaine will get a steady stay-at-home defenseman in Simon Butala and a point-producing blue-liner in Levi Kleiboer (42 points in Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League) next season.

Swayman (15-12-3, 2.72 goals-against average, .921 save percentage) gave UMaine its most consistent goaltending since Martin Ouellette during Gendron’s first year. Junior Rob McGovern (3-4-1, 3.57, .894) and sophomore Stephen Mundinger (1 game) will back him up.

The power play was a respectable 19.5 percent, including 4-for-8 in the last three games, but the penalty-killing (76.6 percent) was dreadful (53rd in the country) and must improve.

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