Whether the game pits Maine against New Hampshire or Colby against Bowdoin, Jim Tortorella knows a little something about northern New England hockey rivalries.
A former goalie at Maine, head coach at Colby and current New Hampshire assistant, Tortorella said that fans and media tend to make more out of perceived rivalries than the players themselves.
“Players play hard no matter what,” he said by phone from Durham, N.H. “It still comes down to execution and making plays.”
If the border rivalry doesn’t heat up the atmosphere inside the UNH’s Whittemore Center this weekend, when Maine wraps up its regular season with two games against the Wildcats, the stakes are sure to stoke the flames.
Maine holds a one-point lead over UMass for the eighth and final Hockey East playoff berth. UMass holds the tiebreaker edge (eight conference victories to Maine’s six, after their season series went 1-1-1), as does seventh-place Vermont, which leads Maine by two points.
New Hampshire, currently in second place, is fighting for the conference title but a pair of losses could conceivably drop the Wildcats to fifth, thus missing out on home-ice advantage for the best-of-three quarterfinal round.
UMass, meanwhile, plays at Merrimack Friday night and hosts Merrimack Saturday night.
“I’d like to say we’re not going to scoreboard-watch,” said Maine senior captain Mark Nemec, “but it’s inevitable.”
Nemec spoke Thursday afternoon before taking the ice for a practice session at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham, where the rink is an Olympic-sized 100 feet wide, same as the dimensions at the Whittemore Center. The Black Bears stopped by on their way to New Hampshire to get acclimated to an ice sheet 15 feet wider than at Alfond Arena.
“In our rink, everything is closer to the nets,” said Maine Coach Tim Whitehead. “Here, defensively, you can get lost in the outside of the rink and all of a sudden the puck’s at your net. So you have to be careful not to get drawn out.”
Furthermore, Whitehead said, New Hampshire is adept at exploiting the increased ice surface while on the attack.
“It’s a tough place to play because it’s such a unique home-ice advantage, both with the ice surface and the crowd,” Whitehead said, “and they’re traditionally a strong team. We had their number last year, but this year they’re right at the top of the standings, so this will be a tough challenge for us.”
In Maine’s nine previous trips to the Whittemore Center, the Black Bears are 0-9.
Then again, Nemec pointed out, the Black Bears were 0-8-1 at the Conte Forum before sweeping Boston College in late January.
“So hopefully the tides have turned a little bit and we get a little luck,” he said. “From what I recall, we’ve had a couple good chances down there, just some misfortune.”
Although New Hampshire is fighting for first and Maine for eighth, the schools sport remarkably similar second-half records. Since Christmas, New Hampshire is 7-6-4 and Maine is 8-6-5.
Also, New Hampshire’s boisterous student section might be slightly subdued, owing to Friday’s last day of classes before spring break. Not that the Black Bears are expecting crickets.
“It gets loud in there,” said senior center Joey Diamond. “They have a good fan base. It’s an exciting college hockey place to play.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: