Every team that wants to be a contender has that one nemesis that serves as a championship roadblock.
Michael Jordan had to overcome the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons. We all know what the Red Sox did in 2004 to silence the “Whose Your Daddy?” chants at the old Yankee Stadium.
For the University of Maine hockey team, that roadblock has been Providence College.
The Friars have knocked the Black Bears out of the Hockey East playoffs twice since the 2013 season. UMaine entered Friday’s must-win, regular-season finale 1-22-1 in its last 24 matchups with Providence.
But the Black Bears put some ghosts to bed thanks to a herculean performance from goaltender Jeremy Swayman, who backstopped UMaine’s 1-0 win in front of a sold-out Alfond Arena on Senior Night.
UMaine’s win coupled with a 3-1 UMass Lowell victory over UConn gave Black Bear fans just what they were hoping for: A top-four finish in Hockey East and a home quarterfinal series.
The Bears wrapped up the regular season 18-11-5 and 12-9-3, respectively. In a season full of a few what-if’s and what-could-have-been’s, UMaine found a way to get the job done.
Swayman is by far UMaine’s best player and he had to be just that for the Bears to have a chance against a Friars team that had a territorial advantage throughout the night. Providence also didn’t give UMaine too many high-quality scoring opportunities, using their size and speed to clog up the neutral zone.
With the third period nearly halfway gone and the teams skating four a side, senior captain Mitch Fossier found himself all alone at the top of the circle.
He took advantage. Michael Lackey, who had a stellar game in his own right, had no chance. The Alfond went crazy.
Swayman clearly showed why he is one of the top goaltenders in the nation. He faced 48 shots. He stopped them all, including a breakaway shortly after Fossier gave UMaine the lead. That marked Providence’s best chance the rest of the night. The Bears held their own in their own end, and put their demons to bed. Twenty-one of Swayman’s stops came in a heart-stopping third period.
You take Swayman out of UMaine’s crease, this game is probably sealed and dealed in Providence’s favor after two periods. The Black Bears haven’t had a goaltender of this caliber since Ben Bishop.
Come next week, Swayman’s presence, along with playing in their building, gives the Black Bears an advantage against whomever they face. Personally, I’m hoping for BU given the ancient rivalry between the teams.
For now, let’s just enjoy that UMaine will be playing at home next weekend, a pipe dream among fans, coaches and media alike in October, many of whom pegged the Black Bears to miss the Hockey East playoffs alltogether.
The story reminiscent of the movie “Major League” continues to create more magic. Maybe UMaine can convince Charlie Sheen to show up in his “Wild Thing” getup as an honorary captain next weekend?
By RYAN MCLAUGHLIN