Guess what team is just two points out of first place in Hockey East?
That’s right, the University of Maine, which hasn’t finished higher than fourth in the league in nine seasons.
This team, winner of four straight, is capable of finishing in the top four and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament because UMaine has one of the nation’s best goaltenders, it has balanced out its scoring and it has the most favorable schedule in the conference.
One significant concern is UMaine’s recent lack of discipline, even though it ranks 12th in the nation with a .853 penalty-killing percentage.
The top nine teams in Hockey East are separated by only five points, which tells you there is tremendous parity. There aren’t any great teams this year, just a bunch of good ones.
Eight teams qualify for the Hockey East quarterfinals.
The Black Bears have already completed the season series against the three teams ahead of them in the standings: co-leaders Boston College and Massachusetts (20 points each) and third-place Boston University (19).
UMaine went a respectable 3-2-1 against those teams despite playing four of those games on the road. The Black Bears, who share fourth place with UMass Lowell, Providence and Connecticut at 18 points each, have the most favorable schedule of any team in Hockey East.
UMaine plays its next five games, and six of its last eight, in Orono. The Black Bears, who are 8-0-2 this season at Alfond Arena, have upcoming two-game sets with UConn and last-place Vermont.
Also in its favor is UMaine’s No. 15 spot in the Pairwise Rankings, which mimic the NCAA Tournament selection process. The six league tournament champions and 10 at-large teams comprise the 16-team NCAA field.
It should be noted that UMaine has played one more league game than Providence, Boston University and New Hampshire, and two more than Boston College, Northeastern and UMass Lowell. That means those teams have more opportunities to earn points.
Northeastern, which is one point behind UMaine, visits Orono on Friday night.
One of the major developments during UMaine’s four-game winning streak — two overtime triumphs at Boston College and two home victories over Merrimack — has been scoring balance.
That dynamic had been lacking and was one of the reasons UMaine had scored only one goal in four consecutive games earlier this season.
At least two players on three different lines have scored in the four wins and one player on the other line has scored two goals. Defensemen Veli-Matti Tiuraniemi and Cam Spicer also chipped in with a goal each after combining for just one through UMaine’s first 23 games.
Fourth-liners Sam Rennaker and Kevin Hock combined for two goals and two assists in Friday’s 6-2 win over Merrimack. Third-line center A.J. Drobot had the game-winning goal and an assist in the 3-2 win over Merrimack on Saturday.
Second-line right wing Adam Dawe scored twice Friday, his first two even-strength goals of the season after five power-play goals.
The top line has been lighting it up.
Senior left wing and captain Mitch Fossier (7 goals) has a six-game points streak in which he has tallied three goals and nine assists. He is tied for third in the country with 27 assists, and his 1.26 points per game are tied for 13th.
Senior center Tim Doherty (13 goals, 18 assists) has a seven-game points streak (6 goals, 7 assists). Junior right wing Eduards Tralmaks (12 & 13) has a six-game surge (3 & 7).
Tralmaks had been on a line with Doherty and Fossier, but senior Patrick Shea has been seeing a lot of duty with that group and scored the game-winner in the second Boston College game. Tralmaks has been with Drobot and Ryan Smith.
UMaine head coach Red Gendron has the luxury of the last line change for home games and can match the top line against one opponents’ third or fourth lines.
The team Most Valuable Player has been junior goalie Jeremy Swayman, whose .934 save percentage ranks fifth in the country. His 2.28 goals-against average is 21st.
Swayman stopped a breakaway in the final minute Saturday to preserve the win and has given the Black Bears a chance to win every game.
The inexperienced defense corps has been a pleasant surprise. Talented Wisconsin transfer J.D. Greenway, who at 6-foot-5, 212 pounds can be a game-changer with his exceptional skating ability, is coming off a great weekend against Merrimack.
The defense must continue to keep things simple and move the puck out of the zone expediently.
The team is filled with gamers led by sophomore defenseman Simon Butala, who is playing with two broken fingers and a sprained wrist. Tralmaks rebounded from a shoulder injury to play the last four games.
But the discipline issue is legitimate.
In its four-game winning streak, UMaine gave Boston College and Merrimack a combined 27 power-play opportunities. Seven of the nine goals the Black Bears allowed were on the power play, including all four of Merrimack’s.
UMaine is certainly physically tough and its grinding forecheck is predicated on finishing checks and attacking the net front. But the needless offensive zone penalties and retaliation infractions exhibit a lack of mental toughness.
There won’t be any easy games down the stretch, but if the Black Bears can play with more discipline and continue to get supplemental scoring, they will have a good chance to make their first trip to the Hockey East semifinals since 2012.
If they don’t, they could find themselves in ninth place and out of the postseason picture.