Last year, early-season road wins over perennial men’s hockey powers Minnesota and North Dakota (2) were the deciding factors in the University of Maine’s ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.
Those three wins enabled Maine to withstand a 2-6 finish and quarterfinal exit from the Hockey East Tournament.
The Bears won’t have that luxury this season.
They have already lost a pair of important nonconference games at Denver and have only three nonconference games left, including one against an RPI team that hasn’t made the NCAA tourney since 1995.
That means the Black Bears are going to have to have a better Hockey East season than a year ago when they went 14-12-1 and finished fifth.
And their Hockey East schedule begins Friday and Saturday evenings in Boston against former Maine assistant Greg Cronin’s Northeastern University Huskies.
“Every Hockey East game is so important to us this year, especially after losing two to Denver,” said senior left wing and assistant captain Billy Ryan. “We’re not going to get much help in the power rankings [from nonconference games]. Every Hockey East game will be crucial.”
“We definitely want to finish a lot higher in the standings than we did last year,” said senior center Wes Clark. “Hockey East games will be the keys to making the NCAAs.”
“These games this weekend are real big for us,” said senior defenseman and captain Travis Ramsey.
Maine junior goalie Ben Bishop said there is a lot of parity in Hockey East.
“[The championship] is up for grabs. Anybody can take it,” said Bishop.
Maine’s players have the utmost respect for Northeastern.
“They always pride themselves on hard work and physical play. We’re going to have to step it up and outwork them,” said Clark.
“Hockey East is going to be a real good league this year and teams like Northeastern, that haven’t been real successful in the past, are coming up,” said Maine senior right wing and assistant captain Rob Bellamy. “Coach Cronin has done a real good job with his team. I was real impressed with them last year. I love going down there and playing. They have a great rink [Matthews Arena].”
“We’ve got to play our game and feed off last weekend [two wins over Mercyhurst],” added Bellamy.
Cronin knows the Black Bears are young and lost seven of their top 10 scorers.
But he expects a battle.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Maine program. We’ve got to contain them. They’re always explosive offensively, even with eight freshmen playing. If you turn the puck over, they’ll turn it into a two-on-one in a hurry,” said Cronin. “Their goaltending has always been terrific and it still is. [Bishop’s] their best player. We’ve got to find ways to get pucks behind him without changing anything.”
He also said Maine’s winning tradition is a real plus for them.
“They go into games thinking they’re going to win. We’ve got to try to psychologically prepare our team to apply its own identity into the game,” added Cronin.