There was a time when the University of Maine men’s hockey team was always ranked in the top 10 in the national polls.
Between the 1986-1987 and 2011-2012 seasons, UMaine made 18 NCAA Tournament appearances, including 11 Frozen Fours, and captured national championships in 1993 and 1999.
But UMaine’s forays into the national rankings have been rare in recent years.
UMaine (15-9-4 overall, 9-7-2 in Hockey East) hasn’t reached the Hockey East semifinals or made an NCAA Tournament appearance since the 2011-2012 season. That’s almost eight years.
But the Black Bears’ 4-2 victory over No. 12 Northeastern last Friday night elevated them to the No. 17 ranking in the United States College Hockey Online poll. More importantly, it catapulted them into a 13th-place tie with Quinnipiac in the Pairwise Rankings which mimic the NCAA Tournament selection process.
Sixteen teams qualify for the tournament: The six conference tournament champions and 10 at-large teams. The teams highest in the Pairwise Rankings earn those final 10 berths.
“We don’t think about [the national ranking] too much,” senior left wing and captain Mitch Fossier said. “We’ve been here before but never this late in the season.
“It’s an indication of how we’ve been playing. There are positives to take away from it but, as everybody knows, if you lose a couple of games, you go way down,” he added.
UMaine has won five consecutive games including back-to-back overtime road wins over No. 4 Boston College and the Northeastern victory which snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Huskies.
UMaine is 7-1-1 in its last nine games.
UMaine head coach Red Gendron and his players aren’t getting wrapped up in the rankings because they still have six Hockey East games remaining. They include this weekend’s two-game set with the University of Connecticut.
That will be followed by two home games against cellar-dweller Vermont and single games with Providence on successive weekends: Feb. 29 at Providence and March 6 in Orono.
UMaine is 13-0-2 in its last 15 games at Alfond Arena dating back to last season.
Fossier said he hopes UMaine’s recent success will provide the team with some swagger. But he stressed that the Black Bears must continue to be a tough, physical team that forechecks relentlessly and wins puck battles.
The Black Bears, punished the speedy Huskies last Friday night by delivering one jolting check after another all over the ice.
“I have a buddy on the Northeastern team and he told me after the game that we were no fun to play against,” Fossier said. “I took that as a compliment.”
“It was fun to watch from my end,” UMaine junior goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “Our defense made it real easy on me. I had the best view in the house.”
A confident UMaine team may finally believe that it can escape the mediocrity in which it has been stuck for several years.
“[Winning] becomes a habit,” senior left wing Ryan Smith said. “We’ve done a good job building up our culture with the expectation of winning.”
UMaine has had a good scoring balance during its streak as there have been 11 different goal scorers and 13 players who have registered at least one point (goal or assist).
“Getting all four lines [producing] is pretty important for us,” Gendron said. “Opponents can’t focus on just one or two lines.”
Gendron said the national ranking doesn’t mean anything right now and that the primary goal is to get better every day and keep winning.
UMaine has 20 points and is tied for third place in Hockey East with Boston College. That spot is tenuous as seven points separate the top nine teams that are vying for eight playoff spots.
Massachusetts leads the league with 24 points and UMass Lowell is second with 22. Boston University and New Hampshire have 19 points, Connecticut and Providence have 18 and Northeastern has 17. Some teams have played more league games than others.
UConn, UMaine’s next opponent, is the last team to beat the Black Bears (3-2 on Jan. 15 in Bridgeport, Connecticut). The Huskies (11-12-4, 8-7-2 HE) haven’t played since sweeping UNH on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.
“They have some heavy [physical] forwards and some highly skilled forwards,” Gendron said. “Clearly, we’re going to have to be able to defend and manage the puck against them.”
“They’re pretty hot. It’s going to be a good challenge,” Fossier said.