Saturday, April 19, 2014
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.
Martin Ouellette, who started 28 of 36 games in goal for UMaine, recognized the Black Bears were a good team early in the season despite their struggles. “I just knew we had the potential to do something this year,” he said.
The Associated Press
HOCKEY EAST QUARTERFINALS
Best of three
WHO: No. 8 Maine (11-17-8, 7-12-8 Hockey East) at No. 1 UMASS-Lowell (22-10-2, 16-9-2)
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, 7 p.m. Friday and, if necessary, TBA Sunday
WHERE: Tsongas Arena, Lowell, Mass.
RADIO: WLOB-AM (1310)
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.
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