ORONO — The University of Maine men’s hockey team far exceeded expectations a year ago by finishing in a third-place tie in Hockey East after being picked eighth in the preseason coaches poll.

But the Black Bears fell a goal short of earning the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since the 2006-2007 season.

Maine fell to eventual NCAA champion Boston College 7-6 in overtime in the Hockey East title game.

A 1-5 start and a 1-5 late-season stretch, capped by a 2-1 loss to UMass Lowell in the opener of their best-of-three HE quarterfinal series, left Maine needing to win the league tournament to earn the automatic bid to the NCAAs. An at-large berth was out of the question.

If the 2010-2011 team lives up to expectations, it should enter the Hockey East tournament with a strong foothold on an NCAA berth.

Expectations high for Bears

The journey back to the NCAA Tournament begins Friday at 7 p.m. when the Bears host Lowell. Failing to make the tourney would be unacceptable.

There will be a lot of pressure on this team but it is mature enough to handle it and the Bears should benefit from the confidence they gained during last year’s playoff run.

Of course, everything is contingent on the team avoiding devastating injuries like the ones endured by the 2010 Boston Red Sox.

The coaches and players are confident. And opposing coaches feel this will be a formidable team.

Maine was picked second in the preseason HE coaches poll; seventh in two national polls and ninth in another.

“I think they’re going to be really good,” said Providence coach Tim Army. “They basically return everyone. They have, arguably, the best player in the country (junior right wing Gustav Nyquist) and he has good people around him as well.

“They gave BC a great deal of difficulty (in the title game) and they can build off that. They’re definitely a team that will contend for the league title,” added Army.

“They’ve got a lot of talent,” said Boston University coach Jack Parker.

“I think they’re going to be terrific,” said Northeastern coach and former Maine interim head coach and assistant Greg Cronin. “They’ve got more firepower coming back than anyone else except BC. Nyquist has returned and (Brian) Flynn plays at a very high level. (Tanner) House really came on last year and, on defense, (Jeff) Dimmen and (Will) O’Neill are as good as it gets.

“I don’t know who the goalie will be. That’s the issue,” added Cronin.

The puck stops here

Goaltending will be the question mark since oft-suspended Scott Darling has departed and playoff savior Dave Wilson graduated.

The saving grace is, if the team improves its defensive zone play and its penalty-killing to complement its goal-scoring prowess, adequate goaltending should enable them to win most games and earn an NCAA bid.

The Maine players are confident sophomore Shawn Sirman and freshmen Dan Sullivan and Martin Ouellette will provide them with solid goaltending. Junior Josh Seeley is also in the picture.

“They’ve looked great,” said junior left wing Flynn. “We should be fine. They will push each other all year and our team defense should continue to get a lot better. That should give them some help.”

“The competition among them will help them become even better,” said senior center and captain House.

“I think that’s going to be one of our strengths,” predicted senior center Robby Dee.

Sirman played in eight games a year ago and was 1-6 with a 5.19 goals-against average and a .832 save percentage.

By his own admission, he wasn’t in the physical condition he needed to be in to be effective.

Sirman was respectable on first shots but he struggled to get back into position to make second and third saves because of his conditioning.

Sirman is in much better shape and is ready to elevate his game and prove he can be a reliable No. 1 goaltender.

He also likes what he has seen from the freshman and said “I don’t see goaltending being that big of a problem for us.

“I was really surprised how good (Sullivan and Ouellette) are,” he said, adding they will all benefit from the competition between them.

Veteran defense corps versatile

Maine returns all of its defensemen and has a nice blend.

Junior O’Neill (8 goals, 23 assists) and senior assistant captain and Hockey East second-team choice Jeff Dimmen (12 & 18) finished 10th and 11th in the country, respectively, in points per game by defensemen. Both had six power-play goals. Senior Josh Van Dyk (1 & 17) appears to have added a step of speed and could evolve into a consistent offensive threat.

Senior Mike Banwell (3 & 2), junior Ryan Hegarty (1 & 7) and sophomore Mark Nemec (1 & 4) are resourceful and rangy stay-at-home defensemen and Banwell, sophomore Mike Cornell (0 & 3) and freshman Brice O’Connor will supply a necessary physical presence that will keep opposing forwards on their toes.

“The majority of us have played together for three years now so we know each other and communicate well,” said Van Dyk.

Offense has ample weapons

The Bears finished fourth in the country in goal production last season (3.67 goals per game) thanks to the nation’s best power play (27.7 percent efficiency). They allowed 3.33 gpg and that’s too many.

They have returned 11 of their top 12 scorers, 90.5 percent of their offense and nine of the 10 players who played on their top two power-play units. The players feel they have more scoring depth and overall team speed.

“Every line will be able to put the puck in the net,” said Flynn. “And our team speed has increased a lot. I know the returning guys did better on their speed testing and the freshmen did well, too.”

Maine beat Acadia University (Nova Scotia) 5-1 in an exhibition game last Sunday and Sirman said, “I couldn’t believe how fast we looked out there. We looked a lot different than we did last year.”

The Bears will boast one of the nation’s best lines with Hobey Baker Award Hat Trick (final three) finalist Nyquist (19 & 42) on the right wing, Flynn (19 & 28) on left wing and House (18 & 21) at center. House led the team in power-play goals with 10 while Nyquist had eight and Flynn had seven. Nyquist led the nation in scoring and in points per game (1.56).

“Nyquist is one of the best players I’ve seen in Hockey East in a long time,” said UMass Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald. “His ability to elevate his own game and the games of the people around him is exceptional.”

The second line features three players who played their best hockey in the playoffs and appear ready to take their games to the next level.

Senior Dee (13 & 12) will be flanked by creative junior left wing Spencer Abbott (9 & 19) and hard-nosed sophomore right wing Joey Diamond (9 & 3). Abbott had 2 & 3 in his last five games; Diamond had 3 & 1 in his last two and Dee had 1 & 2 in his last four. Diamond was chosen to the Hockey East All-Tournament team.

They must be productive to take the pressure off the House line.

For the Acadia exhibition, Maine coach Tim Whitehead reunited the New Hampshire Junior Monarch line of sophomores Matt Mangene (1 & 10) between LW Adam Shemansky (9 & 12) and RW Kyle Beattie (1 & 4). Mangene has electrifying speed, the 5-foot-7 Shemansky is a tireless worker with a scoring touch and Beattie is much stronger this season and is a highly-skilled player who can also be physical. All three are capable of having 10-goal seasons.

Mangene saw some playoff duty on defense due to an injury sustained by Dimmen and was very effective thanks to his acceleration. Sophomore Nick Pryor had off-season hip surgery but is back and can play on defense or up front.

Whitehead has plenty of options on the fourth line. Junior Theo Andersson (3 & 3) and sophomore Klas Leidermark (2 & 4) are resourceful role players; freshmen Carlos Amestoy and Jon Swavely are small, quick, point-producers; freshman Mark Anthoine is a rugged puck-winner and goal scorer; and redshirt freshman Kelen Corkum is a solid two-way player who should improve steadily after missing two years due to post-concussion syndrome.

The penalty-killing (80.1 percent) must improve. Teams were able to sustain extensive offensive zone pressure because Maine’s forwards weren’t quick enough to pressure the points. That should change.

“(Whitehead) has addressed that,” said Flynn. “We’d like to get the penalty killing up to the caliber of the power play. If your special teams are in the top half of the league (stats-wise), that’s a recipe for success.”