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It’s a happy return, but Maine has tall test

Bears open against defending champs

Tim Whitehead, who guided Maine through a tough early season stretch, must find a way stop Minnesota-Duluth. Tim Whitehead, who guided Maine through a tough early season stretch, must find a way stop Minnesota-Duluth. (Michael C. York/Associated Press)
By John Powers
Globe Staff / March 24, 2012
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WORCESTER - A week before Thanksgiving Maine’s hockey team was buried deeper than an Aroostook potato with just three victories in 11 outings and five Hockey East losses, two of them at home to a UMass-Lowell bunch that had won five games last year. The Black Bears had to scramble to earn home ice for the conference tournament and ended up hosting Merrimack, which had been the nation’s top team in December. And their best player, who may or may not play this weekend, was knocked cuckoo in their TD Garden grapple with Boston University on March 16.

So who does Maine draw as the opening opponent for its first NCAA appearance since 2007? Minnesota-Duluth, the defending champion.

“We’ve kind of had our backs to the wall since the beginning of the season,’’ observed coach Tim Whitehead, whose third-seeded squad (23-13-3) takes on the second-seeded Bulldogs (24-9-6) in the Northeast Regional on Saturday night at the DCU Center.

Missing the national stage for a fifth straight season would have been considered heresy by the Alfond Faithful, who were growling while the Black Bears were finding themselves during the autumn.

“We just focused on blocking out all the people that call themselves faithful and all that chatter,’’ said Whitehead, whose club is 17-6-1 since Christmas.

Expectations perennially are lofty in Orono after what had been two decades of springtime hockey. Maine made the NCAA field seven straight times between 1987 and 1993, then nine more between 1999 and 2007, reaching the Frozen Four 11 times in all and winning the title in 1993 and 1999. So four seasons on the outside seemed like an endless winter.

“We’ve been right there the past few years before this,’’ said captain Brian Flynn, whose teammates were an overtime goal from an automatic bid in 2010 and were on the bubble last season. “So we’ve been knocking on the door.’’

The question this weekend is whether the Black Bears can bust through a bracket that includes not only UMD but Boston College, which ripped them up, 4-1, in last week’s Hockey East championship game and an Air Force sextet that annually is one of the field’s toughest outs. “We know it’s going to be difficult, but everywhere you go the brackets are tough,’’ acknowledged Whitehead. “We’re looking forward to the challenge.’’

How well Maine fares may well depend on whether Spencer Abbott, the nation’s leading scorer with 61 points, will be allowed to play after sustaining a head injury against BU.

“Several people have asked me if he’s going to give it a go, but you don’t give it a go with a head injury,’’ Whitehead said after Abbott skated yesterday. “It’s whether or not he has been cleared yet and he has not been cleared yet.’’

The Black Bears were able to beat the Terriers without Abbott, but they missed his firepower against BC and they obviously need him against Minnesota-Duluth. The champs may have been bounced out of the WCHA tournament by Denver but they were invincible for nearly three months, going unbeaten in 17 games, all but six on the road. And after last year’s run to their first title since the program began after World War II, the Bulldogs have learned the fine art of surviving elimination games.

“One game can keep your season going or end it in a hurry,’’ said senior defenseman Brady Lamb.

While Lamb and his classmates are going through this for the third time, it’s a novelty for the Black Bears. “You always want experience, of course, but our guys will be fine,’’ predicts Whitehead. What will help, he reckons, is having beaten archrival New Hampshire in overtime in front of more than 38,000 witnesses at Fenway Park and coming from behind twice to knock off BU in the Hockey East semis.

“We’ve been through that wringer,’’ said Whitehead. “That’s one of the positives of playing in Hockey East. You get out of your own tournament and you qualify, you’re ready for anything.’’

Time was when you could all but write the Black Bears into an NCAA bracket in October and fast-forward them to the Frozen Four. Being off the big stage for as long as they were seemed an eternity.

“That surprises me when you say five years,’’ said BC coach Jerry York, whose varsity has missed the tournament only twice in the last 15 years. “But they’re back.’’

And if Maine’s first dancing partner happens to be the reigning monarch, that’s fine. “We might as well start at the top,’’ figures Whitehead, “and go from there.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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