When you look at the fabled history of the University of Maine men’s hockey program, big games are synonymous with the long history of the Black Bears. Sadly UMaine hasn’t had many games of the high-stakes variety in the Red Gendron era. The Black Bears haven’t been to the Hockey East semifinals since the 2011-12 season, which happens to be the last time the program made the NCAA Tournament.
You could argue that Friday’s regular-season finale against Providence College at Alfond Arena is the biggest game in Gendron’s tenure in Orono. Because it is long overdue for March games to mean something in this neck of the woods.
There’s a lot on the line for this hard-working group of Black Bears.
UMaine comes into its season finale fifth in Hockey East, with a chance to grab home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.
For that to happen, the Black Bears need to win and hope UMass Lowell can beat fourth-place UConn, which would vault UMaine into fourth place and keep it home next weekend.
A loss or tie, and the Black Bears will be on the road next weekend. There’s a ton of scenarios at play and UMaine can finish anywhere from 4th to 7th. Should the Bears win and UConn lose at Lowell, UMaine’s playoff opponent could by the Huskies or longtime rival Boston University.
This longtime Black Bear follower hopes its the rival Terriers. Should UMaine take care of business, the River Hawks defeat UConn and BU sweep a floundering Northeastern club that has lost its way without Tyler Madden, the Terriers would be at the Alfond next weekend.
But first thing’s first, UMaine needs to find a way to defeat a Providence club that it has defeated just once in their last 24 meetings (1-22-1). This UMaine club has the talent to do it.
First off, the Bears need goaltender Jeremy Swayman to be Jeremy Swayman. Don’t be surprised if the Anchorage, Alaska native is in the Hobey Baker conversation this month. His .937 save percentage is tied for third-best in the nation. He gives UMaine a chance every night.
Offensively, veterans such as Mitchell Fossier, Tim Doherty, Eduards Tralmaks, Pat Shea and Ryan Smith will need to be productive. The Bears will need to get traffic to the front of the net and capitalize on rebounds.
UMaine also can’t afford to let Providence jump out fast and take what should be a raucous Alfond Arena crowd out of the game early. The Bears also need to play with poise and feed off their home crowd, and not take silly penalties as the Friars have one of the nation’s top power-play units.
UMaine still has an outside shot at the NCAA Tournament. Getting a win against a longtime nemesis could jumpstart a special run. As long as Swayman is on his game, the Bears can play with anybody in the country.
It’s just exciting to be talking about UMaine hockey and “big games” again in March.
BY RYAN MCLAUGHLIN