It was a weekend with “must sweep” expectations for University of Maine hockey fans as the Black Bears headed into a home series against a Vermont team that is winless in Hockey East. UMaine set the tone emphatically with a 6-1 thumping on Friday night, but could only manage to take three points out of a possible four as the teams skated to a 0-0 tie on Saturday.
The Black Bears looked every bit like a championship contender Friday, scoring six unanswered goals with captain Mitch Fossier recording four points (1 goal, 3 assists).
Maine was also aggressive on the forecheck and attacking the net with consistency, and were primed to complete a much-needed sweep and stay in the all-important top four in the Hockey East standings.
But it was not to be. The Black Bears let a point slip away at the most inopportune time, and now face season-ending single games against a Providence College club that has had Maine’s number the last seven years. The teams will play in Rhode Island next weekend and in Orono the following Saturday.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Saturday’s scoreless affair was that Maine let the Catamounts muck up the game. Vermont clogged up the neutral zone and didn’t let Maine have any time and space in the middle of the ice. It was essentially the hockey version of stallball basketball. Bob Cimbollek must’ve been phoning in strategies to UVM coach Kevin Sneddon.
And the Black Bears played right into Vermont’s hands by not getting traffic to the netfront consistently. Maine isn’t good enough offensively to not generate any dirty goals down low.
Some fans will even tell you a “tie is better than a loss.” I hate to be that scribe, but a tie to a 3-win team in your building may as well be a loss. It could also be the difference between playing a Hockey East quarterfinal series in Orono or in Boston. And I have a hard time believing UMaine is going to take two from Providence to end the regular season, which it appears it will have to do if it wants to be playing at home in March.
Now, it’s looking more and more like Maine will have to get to TD Garden and get tons of help if it wants to squeak into the NCAA Tournament. Three points were left on the table against UConn and Vermont the last two weekends.
When the dust settled Saturday, Maine was in 3rd place in Hockey East by themselves, one point behind UMass and three back of first-place Boston College. Games in hand are not in Maine’s favor, and UConn and UMass Lowell – both of whom own tiebreakers against the Bears – sit just a point back heading into the final two weekends. UConn and Lowell both have home-and-homes next weekend, with the Huskies facing UMass and the River Hawks taking on UNH. I know it’s blasphemy to root for that team from Durham, but Maine will need some help from the Wildcats.
Realistically, Maine is not going to catch BC. The Eagles conclude their regular season with single games against Merrimack and BU and a home-and-home with UNH, so BC controls its own destiny as far as the top seed in the conference.
There’s no doubt this Black Bear team is a vast improvement than the one that barely squeaked into the league playoffs last winter, and Maine will probably finish the weekend hanging on to that last home-ice berth. But can the Black Bears overcome their nemesis and show their fans that this program is truly back on the rise?
Hopefully it’s a reverse of the end of the 2013-14 season when the Bears had a chance to finish as high as second in the league, but were swept by – you guessed it – Providence, at home, and were subsequently knocked out of the playoffs by the Friars.
by Ryan McLaughlin