There is an uneasiness among University of Maine hockey fans.
Saturday night’s 0-0 tie with last-place Vermont, which is now 0-17-4 in Hockey East, appears like the type of result that could send the Black Bears packing for yet another difficult Hockey East best-of-three quarterfinal road series instead of hosting one at Alfond Arena in Orono where they have lost just once in the past 18 games (14-1-3).
One measly point lost.
Two points are awarded for a win and one for a tie, but an unparalleled logjam in Hockey East has made every point even more precious than in previous years.
Nine points separate the top nine teams vying for eight playoff spots. UMaine could finish anywhere from first to ninth. The Black Bears are currently third with 25 points, one behind No. 2 UMass and three behind league-leader Boston College.
The parity in the league stems from the fact that although there are several good teams in Hockey East, there isn’t one or two that stand head-and-shoulders above the rest as in previous years.
Boston College was picked to win the conference in the preseason coaches poll, but the Eagles are youthful. They are relying heavily on their freshmen class. Three of their top seven scorers and their workhorse goalie, NHL first-round draft choice Spencer Knight, are freshmen.
But youthful teams are often inconsistent, although the Eagles are the hottest team in the conference right now with a five-game winning streak. UMaine (7-1-1) and Conn (5-1) are the other surging teams and UMass has won three of its past four.
UMaine, the nation’s 15th-ranked team in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll, is in third place and leads fourth-place UConn and UMass Lowell by one point, No. 6 Boston University by two, seventh-place Northeastern and Providence by three points, and ninth-place New Hampshire by six.
Merrimack won’t make the playoffs. The Warriors are locked into a 10th-place finish, and Vermont will wind up 11th.
Every team plays 24 league games, and UMaine is one of two teams that has played 22.
The other team that has played 22 is Providence, and UMaine concludes the regular season at Providence on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. and at home against the Friars the evening of March 6.
The good news is UMaine controls its own destiny. Two wins over Providence would probably clinch a home quarterfinal berth.
The bad news is UMaine is 1-19-1 in its past 21 games against the Friars including a season-opening 7-0 shellacking in which the Friars outshot UMaine 59-29.
However, the Friars have gone an uncharacteristic 1-5-1 in the past seven games and were swept by Merrimack last weekend.
Boston College, New Hampshire and Northeastern have all played 20 games and Boston University, UMass Lowell, UConn and UMass have played 21.
One of UMaine’s dilemmas is it would lose the tiebreaker based on the season series to UMass, UConn and UMass Lowell, and is one loss away from losing it to Providence.
UMaine owns the tiebreaker over Boston College, but it is a moot point since Boston College needs just one win in its final four games (vs. Merrimack, at BU, two games vs. UNH) to finish higher than UMaine no matter what the Black Bears do.
UMaine also has the tiebreaker against Boston University and UNH.
It is unlikely that UMaine will finish in the top four based on its recent track record with Providence and the number of teams around it that owe the tiebreaker against it.
But the Black Bears’ 7-1-1 showing over their past nine games, the most recent seven being at home (5-1-1), has enabled them to climb out of the bottom three and put themselves in position to finish in the top four.
And junior goalie Jeremy Swayman has complied an impressive 1.46 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage over his past eight games.
So the Black Bears are capable of winning a road series and advancing to the Hockey East semifinals for the first time since the 2011-12 season as evidenced by its sweep at Boston College last month.
But they would have a much better chance if they host the quarterfinals.
UMass and UConn play a two-game set this weekend as does UMass Lowell and UNH. Boston College hosts Merrimack on Thursday before visiting a rested BU team on Saturday and Northeastern, which is without leading scorer Tyler Madden [broken finger], visits Vermont for two.
In two weekends, Boston University and Boston College play a home-and-home set, Boston College plays a home-and-home series with UNH, UMass hosts Vermont for one and UMass Lowell entertains UConn for one along with the Providence-UMaine game.