May 27, 2020

Black Bears in thick of battle for final HE postseason berth

They successfully executed step one.

But the University of Maine men’s hockey team has more hurdles to negotiate in its quest to qualify for the Hockey East Tournament.

Maine’s sweep of UMass on Saturday and Sunday, its first back-to-back wins since a road sweep at Northeastern on Oct. 26-27, elevated the Bears to within just two points of UMass in the battle for the eighth and final playoff spot.

The two victories also ensured that the Bears would win the tie-breaker if they finish the season deadlocked with the Minutemen.

Maine is also within striking distance of UMass Lowell in seventh because the Bears host the River Hawks for a pair in two weekends.

The Bears trail UML by five points so they will have to earn at least one more point than UML this weekend for a chance to move past the River Hawks with a sweep on the final weekend.

“It was a gutsy effort. Our backs were against the wall and we came out with two wins,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “The crowd was fabulous both days. Our work has just begun. We’re still fighting to get into the playoffs. We have to take it one step at a time.”

Merrimack is also still alive as the last-place Warriors are just one point behind Maine after sweeping Providence. The Warriors have home-and-home series left with newly crowned regular season champion New Hampshire and UMass.

The Black Bears will travel to Vermont for games on Friday and Saturday nights and the Catamounts have been one of the hottest teams in the league with an 8-2-2 mark over their last 12 and a 4-1-1 mark in their last six home games.

UMass, 2-10-1 in its last 13, has a home-and-home series with Boston University, which has won six straight. UMass Lowell, loser of five of its last six, plays a home-and-home set with Northeastern. NU has lost four of its last five.

The Catamounts have climbed into a tie for second place with Boston University, one point ahead of Boston College and three points ahead of Providence and Northeastern. The Catamounts, in their third year in the league, could take a giant step toward earning its first-ever home ice berth for the quarterfinals with a sweep of Maine.

“We’re back in it but there’s a lot of work ahead of us,” said Whitehead. “It’s exciting to be back in the hunt for a playoff spot. Now we have to focus on the task at hand which is this weekend with Vermont.

“We need to focus on things we can control which is our own effort and our own execution. If we do that, we’ll have a great opportunity to catch the teams in front of us,” said Whitehead.

The return to the lineup of senior left wing Billy Ryan, who missed nine games with a stress fracture in his hip, and freshman left wing Andrew Sweetland, who had been out for three games with a back ailment, gave the Bears a definite lift, according to Whitehead.

Each had an assist on Friday with Sweetland adding two goals and an assist on Saturday. It was his pass from behind the net that resulted in Wes Clark’s overtime game-winner.

“They were a big positive impact on our team,” said Whitehead. “The combination of getting them back and getting [Keenan] Hopson and [Chris] Hahn back a couple weeks earlier really lifted our offensive mentality. Our guys were a lot more confident with the puck. Composure making plays is contagious. [In addition to them], you saw other guys making great plays as well.”


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