When the University of Maine hockey team heads to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007, the Black Bears will board a bus instead of a plane.

Maine will play in the Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass., taking on defending champion Minnesota-Duluth in the first round at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

“It’s somewhat close to home, and our family and friends can be there,” Maine Coach Tim Whitehead said.

Maine fans, who arrived at the TD Garden en masse last weekend for the Hockey East final four, are expected to show up in big numbers to the DCU Center (formerly the Worcester Centrum).

Maine (23-13-3) is seeded third in the regional. Minnesota-Duluth (24-9-6) is seeded second. The winner will play Sunday against the winner of the 4 p.m. semifinal game between top-seeded Boston College (29-10-1) and the Air Force Academy (21-10-7).

The four regional winners will advance to the Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla., on April 5-7.

Maine has not played Minnesota-Duluth this year. The Black Bears are very familiar with Boston College, having split four games this season, the last one Saturday, when the Eagles beat Maine 4-1 for the Hockey East championship.

Two other Hockey East teams reached the NCAA’s, both as No. 3 seeds. UMass-Lowell will play Miami in Bridgeport, Conn. Boston University will play Minnesota, which will have the home-ice advantage in St. Paul.

For Maine, it is a celebrated return to the NCAA’s after a four-year drought.

“We’re thrilled,” Whitehead said.

He was also glad to get a Saturday date. Half the field begins play Friday. “We could use the extra day of rest,” Whitehead said. “We had five grueling games the past two weeks.”

An extra day may be enough to get Spencer Abbott back on the ice. He did not play in the Hockey East championship game after taking an elbow to the head Friday night.

“We’re hopeful,” Whitehead said. “Obviously, you can’t replace him.

“We were pretty solid the (last) two periods (Saturday). We learned we can go toe-to-toe (without Abbott).”

The presence of Abbott this Saturday would not only boost Maine, it would put the two favorites for the Hobey Baker Award on the ice at the same time.

Abbott leads the nation in scoring with 61 points (20 goals/41 assists), while Minnesota-Duluth senior Jack Connolly is second with 58 points (19/39).

And while Maine has other forwards, Brian Flynn and Joey Diamond, among the nation’s top scorers, Minnesota-Duluth has Travis Oleksuk and J.T. Brown.

“They have some heavy hitters,” Whitehead said.

The Bulldogs also have a solid goalie in Kenny Reiter (2.40 goals-against average and .927 save percentage).

Reiter took over as a starter at the end of last season and starred during the Bulldogs’ national championship run in 2011.

This year, Minnesota-Duluth finished in second place in the WCHA standings, but lost in the conference semifinals in double overtime, 4-3 to Denver.

This will be the Black Bears’ 18th NCAA appearance. They have reached the Frozen Four 11 previous times, and have won two national titles (1993 and 1999). 

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at:

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