The University of Maine’s hockey team hasn’t played since Dec. 11, when it beat Union College 4-3.
COVID-19 cases at UMaine prevented the Black Bears from going to Penn State for a pair of games last weekend.
But first-year head coach Ben Barr said he will have enough players for this weekend’s home series at Alfond Arena against the Nanooks from the University of Alaska (Fairbanks), an NCAA Division I independent that is in the midst of a three-week road trip and plays one of the toughest schedules in the country.
The teams will play at 7:37 p.m. on Friday night and at 7:05 p.m. on Saturday.
Alaska, which is 4-13-1, has played 10 of its 18 games against teams currently ranked in the top 15 in the weekly U.S. College Hockey Online poll.
Alaska played a series at No. 7 Denver last weekend, losing 7-2 and then rallying for a 4-4 tie, and will complete its road trip with two games at No. 9 Minnesota next weekend.
Erik Largen’s Nanooks used to be in the Western Collegiate Athletic Association but the league dissolved last July after seven schools left to join the revived Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
Alaska did not play last season, opting out for COVID-19 reasons.
The Nanooks will play 20 of their 34 games on the road.
Largen said the team looks at its extensive travel and grueling schedule as a plus for the program.
“Nobody gets that type of experience. Our guys get to be out on the road, eating great meals, seeing new experiences and getting to spend a lot of time with each other,” Largen said.
“Some see it as adversity but we see it as a great opportunity. It’s not for everybody but our guys have really embraced it.”
Alaska has been in Bangor all week and has practiced at Alfond Arena.
“Nobody in college hockey has it any tougher than they do,” Barr said.
UMaine, 2-11-4, will take a three-game unbeaten streak (1-0-2) into the series.
“I hope we can go out and build on what we did before the break,” Barr said. “I would be naive to think we can go out and click on all cylinders right away. But, hopefully, it won’t take too long to get back to the way we were playing before the break.”
Some players contracted COVID-19 and they have had to sit out for a five-day quarantine. But Barr expects to have close to all of his players available.
“Some of the guys have been in the [quarantine] a little while and may be a little rusty. But there is no rust on your effort level and that’s what we always monitor the most,” Barr said.
Barr and Largen feel their teams are similar. The NCAA Division I statistics would validate their opinions.
Alaska is 52nd among 59 teams in offense, averaging 1.89 goals per game, while UMaine is 57th at 1.76. UMaine is allowing three goals per game (36th) with Alaska at 3.17 (tied for 41st). Alaska’s power play is 49th (13.3) while UMaine’s is 57th (8 percent).
“It’s going to be a very physical series,” Largen said. “They play hard and don’t give you a lot of time and space. We’re both heavy forechecking teams whose small guys play with a lot of grit and energy. It’s going to be an exciting series for the fans.”
UMaine has been led by defense partners Jakub Sirota (3 goals, 5 assists) and David Breazeale (1 & 7) along with Lynden Breen (2 & 6), Keenan Suthers (3 & 4) and Donavan Houle (5 & 1). Second leading goal scorer Grant Hebert (4 & 1) will be back after missing four games with a concussion. Matthew Thiessen (0-5-3, 2.73 goals-against average, .898 save percentage) and Victor Ostman (2-6-1, 3.01, .897) have shared the goaltending.
Alaska features goalie Gustavs Davis Grigals (4-10-1, 2.64, .908), who Largen says can play with the best of them. Converted forward Garrett Pyke (3 & 7) and Antti Virtanen (1 & 6) anchor the defense corps and the top line consists of leading scorer Brady Risk (5 & 8) between Filip Fornaa Svensson (3 & 8) and Didrik Henbrant (4 & 3).