The University of Maine’s hockey team made significant strides in its second season under head coach Ben Barr, posting an overall record of 15-15-5 and a Hockey East mark of 9-11-4 compared with last year’s 7-22-4 and 5-17-2 slates, respectively.
The Black Bears, picked to finish last in Hockey East in the preseason coaches poll, wound up earning the sixth seed for the playoffs.
Now the Black Bears find themselves in an unfamiliar favorite’s role in Wednesday’s 7 p.m. first-round playoff game against last-place Vermont (10-19-5, 5-16-3) at UMaine’s Alfond Arena.
Vermont was selected to finish 10th in the preseason poll.
That could put extra pressure on the Black Bears, who have lost their last six playoff games and haven’t reached the Hockey East semifinals since the 2011-12 campaign.
But Barr and his players don’t see it that way.
“Neither team has anything to lose. No one expected anything out of either one of our teams this season,” said Barr. “The one who wins will feel good about their season and the other team won’t. The winner will be one more win away from a really cool experience.”
He was referring to the Hockey East semifinals at the TD Garden in Boston on St. Patrick’s Day, Friday, March 17.
If UMaine wins it will visit third seed Northeastern on Saturday for a quarterfinal game. If Vermont wins, it will travel to take on regular season champion and top seed Boston University.
“This is the best time of the year,” said UMaine sophomore defenseman David Breazeale. “We definitely don’t want our season to end on Wednesday. We’ve worked really hard to earn home ice for the first round of the playoffs and we have to take advantage of it.”
Maine swept Vermont during the regular season, 3-1 and 5-1 in Burlington, Vermont, and outshot the Catamounts 72-36.
“They were shorthanded at that time. They’re a much better team now,” said Barr. “Todd [Woodcroft] is a good coach and they have a real good staff. They beat New Hampshire at New Hampshire last weekend (3-2) and that’s something we couldn’t do.”
UMaine played to a pair of ties at UNH.
“You can’t look at the standings and rankings,” said UMaine junior center and assistant captain Lynden Breen. “They have a lot of guys who play really hard and when it comes to their net front, they’re one of the hardest teams to play against.”
“Anybody can beat anyone else in Hockey East,” said UMaine graduate student defenseman and captain Jakub Sirota, who has never played in front of a crowd in a home playoff game at Alfond Arena.
When UMaine lost to New Hampshire 7-2 in a home playoff game two seasons ago, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented fans from attending.
The previous year, the Black Bears were about to host UConn for a best-of-three quarterfinal series when the season was canceled due to the pandemic.
“It’s exciting to be able to play one more game in front of our fans. I’m going to soak it in as much as I can,” Sirota said.
UMaine is coming off a pair of losses to the University of Massachusetts in Orono last weekend that snapped their seven-game unbeaten streak (4-0-3).
Barr said the team did a lot of “real good things” but a lack of execution and mental lapses proved costly.
“We have to learn from it,” Barr said.
Breazeale agreed, saying they “played good hockey and outworked UMass both nights” but the failure to execute on a few details hurt them.
“The margin of error for our team is really small. We have to make sure we are as dialed in as ever,” Breazeale said. “We have to focus on the minute details.”
UMass did an effective job protecting its net front and Breazeale said Vermont has some big defenseman who are good at boxing out and allowing their goaltender to see the puck.
“We have to really get to their net if we’re going to manufacture some goals,” the defenseman said.
Woodcroft said his Catamounts have had an injury-marred season “including more concussions than a Waffle House has waffles,” but they have a lot of quality underclassmen who have been their catalysts and are the building blocks of the future.
He said his defense corps is solid and they are a “blue-collar” team that has to work hard to produce goals and they embrace it.
UVM’s 1.82 goals per game is 61st among 62 Division I teams.
He has been impressed by the Black Bears and the job Barr has done.
“They’re a heck of a team. Ben should be coach of the year,” Woodcroft said.
Woodcroft said to beat UMaine, his team has to keep it a “five-on-five game“ and not take penalties.
“We have to be able to roll four lines out there and maintain our energy,” he said.
Breen continues to lead the Black Bears in scoring with 19 goals and 15 assists. Ben Poisson has 9 & 17, Nolan Renwick has 9 & 11 and Donavan Houle has notched 9 & 10. Sirota (6 & 9) and Luke Antonacci (3 & 10) have been the top point-producers on the blue line and Victor Ostman (14-11-4, 2.18 goals against average, .919 save percentage) will look to bounce back from a sub-par performance against UMass.
Sophomores Isak Walther (8 & 10), Andrei Buyalsky (4 & 12) and Joel Maata (7 & 7) and junior Will Zapernick (6 & 8) have been UVM’s primary offensive weapons up front and graduate student transfers Eric Gotz (2 & 11) from Michigan Tech and Robbie Stucker (3 & 9) from Minnesota have anchored the blue line in front of junior goalie Gabe Carriere (8-12-3, 2.51, .913).