The University of Maine’s eight seniors find themselves in an unusual situation against visiting UMass Lowell this weekend.
For the first time in their college careers, Saturday’s Seniors Night game may be their curtain call. There may not be a Hockey East or NCAA Tournament in their futures.
The Black Bears are two points behind UMass and two ahead of Merrimack in the battle for the eighth and final playoff berth in Hockey East. Maine owns the tiebreaker against UMass but would lose the tiebreaker to Merrimack due to head-to-head play.
UMass and Merrimack play a home-and-home series this weekend.
Senior forwards Billy Ryan, Keenan Hopson, Rob Bellamy, Wes Clark, Vince Laise and Nolan Boike and defensemen Travis Ramsey and Bret Tyler have enjoyed their four years at Maine and they know what’s at stake this weekend.
Ramsey, the team captain, said he is approaching this weekend as the ultimate challenge.
“It’s going to be fun to play for something important, especially in front of our home crowd for the last time,” said Ramsey. “It’ll really mean something if we pull it off. I know we’ll leave everything out on the ice.”
Bellamy said it has been “crazy” the last three weeks as the Bears have had to play with a sense of urgency to try to climb back into the playoff picture.
They have responded with three wins in their last four games and they are 3-3 in their last six with two overtime losses at Boston University and a 2-0 loss at Vermont.
“We know we’ll have to take four points this weekend [and get help],” said Bellamy.
“This is the first time it really hits home that these could be our last games of the year,” said Hopson. “We’ve always expected to make the playoffs.”
Clark said the only thing they can control is their own play and they want to make sure they turn in a memorable performance “to make our mark and leave our legacy.”
Maine has gone 82-58-14 since the seniors first set foot on the campus.
They have made three straight NCAA Tournament appearances and two consecutive Frozen Fours.
Tyler leads the seniors in games played with 141 and his 87 points on 25 goals and 62 assists put him among the top 20 in school history for defensemen.
Ryan is the career points leader among the group with 90 (34 goals, 56 assists) in 133 games. Hopson has 77 (17 & 60) in 138 games; Bellamy has 46 (14 & 32) in 136 games; Clark has 40 (20 & 20) in 81 games; Ramsey has 28 (5 & 23) in 132 games; Laise has nine points (3 & 6) in 55 games and Boike has a goal and an assist in 18 games, all this season.
Ramsey has played in 128 consecutive games.
Maine coach Tim Whitehead said he has been extremely proud of the way his seniors have dealt with the ups and downs this season and how they’ve handled adversity.
“They enjoyed three very successful seasons but things haven’t come as easy this year because of the amount of injuries to key players,” said Whitehead. “They have done a fabulous job keeping the team together. It says a lot about their character.
“They have persevered and they’re playing their best hockey of the season right now,” said Whitehead.
“They’ve been great leaders. They’ve really helped us out,” said freshman left wing Andrew Sweetland.
“They’ve made the transition easy for us,” said freshman right wing Lem Randall.
“I’ve learned as much from the seniors as I have from the coaches,” said freshman defenseman Mike Banwell.
Maine players have lost 78 games due to injury with Chris Hahn missing 12, Ryan sidelined for nine and Hopson and talented freshman Andrew Sweetland missing six each.
The players all said their Frozen Four appearances have provided them with their fondest memories.
“Not too many players can say they’ve been to a Frozen Four [and we’ve been to two],” said Clark.
“We’ve developed some great friendships and had some great memories,” said Ryan. “I’ve become a lot better hockey player thanks to the coaching staff. They’ve taught me so much on and off the ice. I’m really lucky I made the right choice.”
Boike said even though he has had just one full season with the hockey team, “it has been a great experience. I’ve got memories I’ll never forget.”
“I take pride in getting my degree as well,” said Laise.
“This has been the best time of my life,” said Ramsey.
Bellamy agreed with Laise about the importance of a degree and said, “These have been the best four years of my life.”
The seniors will be honored Saturday night and will get to address the fans after the game.