The University of Maine men’s ice hockey team could not have asked for a tougher opponent in the Hockey East quarterfinals. The Black Bears will host the defending national champion Boston College Eagles in a best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series beginning tonight at Alfond Arena.
UMaine interim head coach Tim Whitehead welcomes the challenge of playing BC in the first round of the playoffs.
“At playoff time, every game is crucial,” Whitehead said. “That goes with the territory. We’ve prepared for this challenge all year. A winner-take-all series is nothing that we’re going to shy away from.
“I told the team that we were probably going to face [BC] at some point anyway, so why not face them on our own rink, where we play the best. All the opponents you see this time of year are challenging opponents and BC is no exception. But we’re a challenging opponent for them.”
UMaine (20-9-7 overall, 14-5-5 in Hockey East) put together one of its best offensive series of the season at Boston University last weekend. The team earned a 9-6 win and a 4-4 tie. Niko Dimitrakos became the second consecutive UMaine player to be awarded Hockey East Player of the Week honors for his four goals and three assists at BU. Peter Metcalf was selected the week before.
Whitehead said Tuesday that Tom Reimann will be back in the lineup for the Black Bears. He missed both games at BU, with what Whitehead called “a laundry list of injuries.” But, other than that, Whitehead anticipates keeping most of the other line combinations together.
Whitehead’s biggest decision may be who to start in goal. Mike Morrison (17-3-4, 2.13 goals against average and .925 save percentage) has been the starter most of the season, but struggled Friday at BU. Matt Yeats, (3-6-3, 3.15, .882) who was the starter for the past two seasons, and has played in many crucial late season games, stepped up and played well Saturday night, challenging to take back the No. 1 role.
Whitehead is pleased both goalies are playing well, and sees it as an advantage.
“You want your goalies to challenge each other, and make each other better,” Whitehead said. “I think that both goalies will improve because they are challenging each other to elevate their games. Both goalies really want to play right now.”
Whitehead said Tuesday the decision would be made after Wednesday’s practice.
Boston College (18-16-2, 10-13-1) is not your typical sixth-seed coming into the tournament. BC is the defending national champion that hit a huge skid in January while playing without one of its stars.
The Eagles lost six games in a row to close out the month while missing sophomore forward Ben Eaves to a broken rib. The Eagles went 3-7-0 in his absence. Eaves is a key member of the offense, scoring 12 goals and 24 assists for 36 points in only 21 games.
His linemate, fellow sophomore Tony Voce, is the team’s leading scorer. Voce is the third-highest overall scorer in Hockey East with 24 goals, 21 assists and 45 points. He is one point ahead of Dimitrakos.
Other key players up front are seniors Jeff Giuliano (11-24-35), freshman Dave Spina (13-13-26) and Ryan Shannon (8-16-24).
BC will need to find a way to replace the play of their best defenseman, sophomore J.D. Forrest. Forrest had surgery yesterday to repair tendon and nerve damage sustained when a skate blade cutting his wrist in Sunday’s regular season home loss to New Hampshire. Forrest was the fourth-leading scorer on the team (8-20-28).
Whitehead doesn’t anticipate his injury affecting BC much.
“Certainly, they’d much rather be going into the playoffs with J.D. Forrest than without him,” Whitehead said. “But they’ve had their share of injuries this year. They’ve got other guys who can step to the plate for them, and I’m sure they’ll do that.”
Those other defensemen needing big weekends are junior Bill Cass (3-5-8), freshman Andrew Alberts (2-10-12) and sophomore Brett Peterson (2-5-7).
Like Whitehead, BC Coach Jerry York has a tough decision in goal. BC freshman Matti Kaltiainen (8-9-0, 2.65, .902) has played well down the stretch. He played once against UMaine, a 5-2 loss Dec. 7 at Alfond.
Junior Tim Kelleher (10-7-2, 2.78, .886), always has given the Black Bears fits. He was stellar against the Black Bears this season in a 3-3 tie Dec. 8 at Alfond and a 4-3 BC win at Conte Forum Feb. 8.
Whitehead says both goalies are tough, so they aren’t preparing for one in particular.
“We’re prepared for both,” Whitehead said. “But we’re not going to put too much weight on which one is in. They’re both good goalies and both will be tough.”
Whitehead said his team will need to play its game to beat BC this weekend.
“We need to focus on playing our game. We played our own game at BU and it was successful. We’ll let the players know what to expect [from BC], but we want to focus on executing our own game.”