ORONO – The University of Maine men’s hockey team has won just two of its last eight games and has fallen out of the national rankings for the first time since late December.

And its starting goalie has been suspended indefinitely.

Prospects for a deep run in the Hockey East playoffs might seem murky for the Black Bears, who open their best-of-three quarterfinal series at 7 p.m. Friday against No. 20 UMass-Lowell.

But the Black Bears haven’t abandoned hope. Instead, they are focusing on the experience they gained from last year’s playoffs.

“We pushed (Boston University) to the brink and they were the best team in the country last year,” said Jeff Dimmen, a junior defenseman. “That gave our young guys and our whole team a lot of good experience. I think we’ll really be ready for this weekend coming up.”

The Black Bears (16-15-3) will face the River Hawks (18-14-4) without sophomore goalie Scott Darling, who has been suspended for violating team rules.

Darling (15-6-3, 3.10 goals-against average, .895 save percentage) was not in uniform for either game this past weekend against UMass. Maine plans to dress freshman Shawn Sirman (1-6, 5.19, .832) and senior Dave Wilson (0-3, 2.84, .871) for the quarterfinals.

“I expect them to handle it well,” said Maine Coach Tim Whitehead. “This is a great opportunity for Dave and Shawn to gain experience and help our team.”

Maine is 20th in the PairWise Rankings, a system that mimics data used by the NCAA selection committee to determine the field for the NCAA tournament.

To make the NCAA tournament, Maine would need to win the Hockey East playoffs or earn one of 10 at-large bids. Two wins this weekend against UMass-Lowell, which is in a four-way tie for 16th in the PairWise Rankings, could help Maine’s cause for an at-large bid.

It’s been an extremely competitive season in Hockey East, with most of the league’s 10 teams bunched near the .500 mark. Maine finished in a three-way tie for third with Boston University and UMass-Lowell, just four points ahead of ninth-place Northeastern, which missed the playoffs.

“The whole season, every game is so important,” said Maine forward Gustav Nyquist, who leads the nation in scoring with 18 goals and 38 assists. “(Last) weekend, there were six teams within reach and two or three points between them (in the Hockey East standings). That’s how tight it is.”

Maine, the No. 4 seed in the playoffs, won two of three games against the River Hawks during the regular season. The teams split a pair of games Feb. 19-20 at Alfond Arena.

The Black Bears are hosting a quarterfinal series for the first time since 2006, when they swept UMass-Lowell with a pair of one-goal victories.

The Black Bears are 10-5-1 at Alfond Arena this season, 2-0-1 on neutral ice, and 4-10-1 on the road.

“It’s huge if you look at the home and away records for the season,” Maine left wing Brian Flynn said of home-ice advantage. “That kind of speaks for itself.”

 

Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be contacted at 791-6415 or at: rlenzi@pressherald.com