University of New Hampshire coach Dick Umile said the fact his Wildcats are leading Hockey East and the University of Maine is in ninth place won’t matter this weekend when the archrivals square off at Alfond Arena in Orono tonight and Saturday evening.
“It’s a huge weekend. Forget about where we are and where they are. I’m sure they haven’t won as many games as they would have liked, but there’s a fine line between winning and losing,” Umile said. “They’ve played well. This will be a big challenge for us.”
He also knows he is facing a team desperate for points to cut into Massachusetts’ four-point lead in the battle for the eighth and final Hockey East playoff spot.
“They’ve [knocked us off] before. They’d like to bump us off and get on a roll again,” said Umile.
Maine coach Tim Whitehead and his players agree with Umile that this rivalry is the biggest one for each team even though each has established rivalries with Boston College and Boston University.
“They’re our biggest rival, by far,” said Maine senior defenseman Travis Ramsey.
“We’ve developed a lot of rivalries, but this is the biggest fan rivalry,” added Maine senior right wing Rob Bellamy.
“There’s no rivalry like UNH and Maine even though we’ve had a longer [rivalry] with BU and BC,” said Umile. “I don’t care where we play, the TD Banknorth Garden or anywhere else, we’ll always sell out.”
Whitehead said Maine-UNH has grown in stature over the years and now ranks up with “BC-BU and Michigan-Michigan State” among college hockey’s top rivalries.
Maine will be bolstered by the return of junior wing Chris Hahn and senior center Keenan Hopson. Hahn has missed 12 games with a broken finger followed by a broken jaw and Hopson has missed six of the last seven games with a separated shoulder.
Hopson had three goals and four assists in 18 games and Hahn had four goals and an assist in 12 games. Both will be used on the power play and in penalty-killing situations as well as taking regular shifts, according to Whitehead.
“That’ll be a big boost for us,” said Bellamy.
“It’ll give our team a huge confidence lift,” said Whitehead.
One of the intriguing matchups will be between the pipes where UNH senior Kevin Regan, who will playing in his 100th career game today, will square off against Maine junior Ben Bishop.
“It’s always fun to play against one of the best goalies in the country,” said Bishop.
“There’s no question they’re two of the better goalies, if not the two best goalies in the league,” said Umile. “They’ve proven that already and both are playing very well right now.”
The Maine players also said it doesn’t matter who they’re playing right now, the desperate need for points overshadows the rivalry.
Ramsey said the team has considered every game a playoff game since the 4-2 win over RPI on Jan. 6.
“We need to get on a roll. Every point is precious. The UMass game was a four-point game and we didn’t come out with a win. Every game keeps rising in importance,” said Ramsey.