To say the Massachusetts hockey team faces its most significant weekend of the season would be an understatement.
Fighting for a chance to earn a spot in the Hockey East Tournament, UMass heads on the road for a pair of games against Maine, with its playoff fate on the line.
Sitting in ninth in the standings, the Minutemen (16-16-0, 11-14-0 HEA) are a point behind Merrimack for eighth place and two points behind Boston University, Northeastern and Vermont, who are all tied for fifth.
The No. 17-ranked Black Bears (16-13-3, 13-10-2 HEA), meanwhile, are third in Hockey East behind Boston College and conference leader New Hampshire.
Though Maine has already gained a berth in the Hockey East Tournament, UMass coach Don Cahoon knows that the Black Bears still have something to play for.
“They’re fighting as hard as we’re fighting, they’re fighting for home ice and they know that’s such a big part of success in the playoff structure,” Cahoon said before Wednesday’s practice. “There’s always the exception to the rule, but that’s a big advantage.”
The Minutemen have won the last three meetings with Maine, including the 5-3 victory on Oct. 23 earlier this season. All those wins, however, came at the Mullins Center. UMass has dropped seven straight contests at Alfond Arena, with the last win coming in the 2003-04 season.
“The environment is just crazy,” Cahoon said. “It’s a tough place to play, and you just have to block everything out and compete.”
All-time, the Black Bears lead the series with the Minutemen, 39-14-5, dating back to 1978, when Maine won 13 of the first 14 meetings. Since 2005, however, the series has been more even, with UMass holding an 8-7-1 edge.
In their last game, the Minutemen were unable to break their losing streak, dropping their sixth straight in a 2-1 overtime heartbreaker at Conte Forum against BC. UMass received its only goal from senior Brett Watson, who scored his first goal in 82 games. At the two minute, two second mark in the extra frame, Chris Kreider scored the game-winning shot for the Eagles.
Junior goaltender Paul Dainton recorded 31 saves in the loss, while Parker Milner made 34 stops for BC.
“Friday’s game was a terrific effort and could have gone either way,” Cahoon said. “It was a game that we were in every bit of a position to win as BC, but the bottom line is we didn’t get the win. Building off of it, I think it’s a quick refresher off of how we need to play to be in the mix.”
Maine, meanwhile, split its weekend’s road contests against Merrimack in North Andover. On Friday night, the Warriors scored six goals en route to a 6-3 win over the Black Bears. The following night, Maine responded with an offensive outpour of its own to defeat Merrimack, 5-1.
Sophomore Gustav Nyquist scored two goals and added two assists to lead the Black Bears’ attack, while freshman goaltender Shawn Sirman made 24 saves and allowed only one goal to pick up his first collegiate win.
Though Maine and UMass have seemingly switched places since the last meeting between the two teams, Cahoon realizes his squad can atone for its recent struggles with wins this weekend.
“We need to just take care of this weekend. About a month ago we were in second place, and now here we are sitting in ninth place,” Cahoon said. “I don’t go there and don’t persuade my guys to go there, they just need to take care of what’s right in front of them and go forward.”
Jay Asser can be reached at email@example.com.