With a rumbling motor coach beckoning outside the Whittemore Center early Saturday evening in Durham, N.H., Mike Cornell allowed himself a satisfied smile before leaving the warmth of the arena to board the bus back to Orono.
Never before in his career at the University of Maine had Cornell, a senior defenseman, walked out of the Whittemore with such a sense of accomplishment.
Until beating New Hampshire 4-3 Friday night and erasing a two-goal deficit on Saturday for a 4-4 tie, the Black Bears had lost nine straight games in Durham. When last they won at The Whit, Jimmy Howard was in net in February 2005.
This hardly seemed the season to end such a dubious streak. At the Christmas break, with only two victories and two ties to show for their first 15 games, the Black Bears were mired in last place in Hockey East, a 10-team conference that holds a postseason tournament for its top eight teams.
“At that point, things could only go up,” Cornell said. “We knew we had a young and inexperienced team, and when things are like that, you just have to stick to the systems and believe in the process and stay confident, just have some faith that things are going to turn around.”
Having lost four of its top five scorers from the previous season, and breaking in nine freshmen, the Black Bears planned to rely on defense and goaltending until a scoring touch could develop.
Incumbent netminder Dan Sullivan, a junior, played six of the first nine games and Maine lost all six, supporting Sullivan with only two goals during his time in goal.
Classmate – and roommate – Martin Ouellette took over, playing both games of a series in early November against a UMass-Lowell team then ranked 15th in the country. The Black Bears split the series, losing 2-1 and winning 4-3 in what would be their only Hockey East victory until late January, when they improbably swept Boston College, then ranked third, at Conte Forum, where they had been winless in nine previous contests.
“We knew we had a good team,” said Ouellette, who wound up starting 28 of Maine’s 36 games and was named the conference goaltender of the month for January.
“Just in practice,” Ouellette said. “I’ve been on great teams the last two years, playing with unreal players (such as) Gustav Nyquist and (Spencer) Abbott, so I know what a good team looks like in college now, and I just knew we had the potential to do something this year.”
Few folks outside the Maine locker room believed the Black Bears could resurrect their postseason chances, but since Christmas only Lowell has a better record among Hockey East teams than Maine’s 9-6-6.
Friday’s victory over UNH – then ranked fourth in the country – coupled with a UMass-Amherst overtime loss to Merrimack, clinched a conference playoff berth for the Black Bears, who wound up tied for seventh with Vermont. The Catamounts won the season series 2-0-1 to take the seventh seed, meaning No. 8 Maine will travel to top-seeded Lowell Thursday and Friday for a quarterfinal series at Tsongas Arena that will continue on Sunday, if necessary.
The first two games are scheduled for 7 p.m. (Tsongas is reserved for a boxing match Saturday night.)
The River Hawks are 16-3-1 since Christmas. One of those losses was 4-3 in overtime in Orono on Super Bowl Sunday, the first of only two Maine victories at Alfond Arena this season.
The other Hockey East quarterfinal matchups, all of which begin Friday night, feature No. 5 New Hampshire at No. 4 Providence, No. 6 Merrimack at No. 3 Boston University and No. 7 Vermont at No. 2 Boston College.
The single-game semifinals and finals are scheduled for March 22-23 at TD Garden in Boston. Maine has reached the Hockey East championship game in two of the past three seasons. Boston College is the three-time defending champion.
No team seeded lower than fourth has won the tournament. Maine (2000), BC (2008) and Providence (1996) won it as a fourth seed.
There have been three instances of a No. 8 team knocking off No. 1 in the quarterfinals. Merrimack upset Boston University in 1998, BU upset BC in 2004 and Vermont upset New Hampshire in 2010.
All three Cinderella teams lost in the semifinals, however.
Then again, if Cornell and the other Black Bears have learned anything this season, they will look not to the past, but to the future.
“We love coaching this group,” said Coach Tim Whitehead, who has missed the Hockey East playoffs only once in his 12 years at Maine. “It’s such a great group of young men. They’ve stuck together. The seniors have been fabulous, and they’ve really fought through a lot.”
Last season, there were only five instances of a player missing a game because of an injury. This season, that number climbed to 102, and the Black Bears remain without Connor Leen and Nick Pryor.
So they’ve learned something about resiliency. Other lessons, according to Cornell:
“How to lead a team. How to stay motivated not only as an individual but as a team, when things aren’t going well. The power of hard work. The power of believing in each other and in our team systems.”
He glanced outside to the waiting motor coach.
“You know, hockey’s a crazy game,” he said. “You can never give up.”
NOTES: The University of Maine athletic ticket office has a limited number of tickets for the Maine fan section, available only through 4 p.m. Tuesday. Call 581-BEAR or 800-765-TEAM for more information.
The university is also organizing a bus from Orono for the Thursday and Friday games. Cost is $85 per person, which includes tickets to both games. Discount hotel rooms are available and the bus may stop in the Portland area to pick up any interested fans.
Call 581-4849 or email GoBlackBears@yahoo.com for more information.
Friends of Maine Hockey and The Black Bears of Boston invite Maine fans to join them in a pregame party both nights at the Lowell Beer Works at 203 Cabot St. beginning at 5 p.m.
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: