NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — The season ended unceremoniously for the University of Maine men’s hockey team Saturday night at Lawler Arena, after a 6-2 loss to Merrimack in a best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series.

Now, a series of what-ifs and what-could-have-beens begin.

What if Maine had a healthy No. 1 goalie for a whole season?

What could have been if Maine had won more games against quality opponents, such as New Hampshire or Boston College?

What if the Black Bears hadn’t had such high expectations placed on them this season?

“We ran into a good team in the playoffs,” Maine defenseman Jeff Dimmen said. “I guess we’ll be looking back there and saying, ‘What if …’ ”

The expectations were there: Earn home ice in the Hockey East playoffs as one of the league’s top four teams and return to the NCAA tournament.

Were the Black Bears (17-12-7) broken by the weight of those expectations?

“Obviously, it’s disappointing,” Maine captain Tanner House said. “We came in with high expectations for ourselves and with a lot of goals and we didn’t meet those, for whatever reason. We couldn’t get the job done when we needed to.”

The senior class of Dimmen, House, Josh Van Dyk, Mike Banwell and Robby Dee is Maine’s first senior class since 1986 not to earn an NCAA tournament berth in its career. Maine made its last tournament appearance in 2007, when it reached the Frozen Four.

Boosted by a pair of nonconference wins against North Dakota, the Black Bears rose as high as No. 3 in the national rankings and went into the holiday break 8-4-4, despite injuries to Dimmen (ankle), right wing Joey Diamond (ankle) and defenseman Will O’Neill (knee).

Maine struggled to find consistency after Christmas and lost leads in a pair of losses against Boston University in late January, then dropped two games at New Hampshire in early February. Maine lost or tied 11 games in which it held the lead.

“We came in with high expectations, obviously,” right wing Gustav Nyquist said. “We had a veteran team coming back and we came off to a pretty good start, I thought. We got off to a good start and after that we got into a little bit of a slump and battled our way through it and we were really on a run here coming into the playoffs and feeling pretty good about ourselves.”

A six-game winless stretch coincided with a knee injury to goalie Dan Sullivan, who missed seven games, and a night after a 7-2 loss to Vermont at Alfond Arena, the Black Bears finished the regular-season with a seven-game unbeaten streak and in fifth place in Hockey East. But they couldn’t sustain that momentum in the league playoffs.

Now, questions face the Black Bears. Will Nyquist stay for his senior year or turn pro with the Red Wings organization?

He deferred talk of his future after Saturday’s loss. But the Detroit Free Press reported Sunday that Red Wings Assistant General Manager Jim Nill expects to hear from Nyquist this week regarding his decision to stay at Maine or join the Detroit organization.

Will Maine be able to regroup with the graduation of five seniors and the possible departures of others?

“I’ve learned a lot from those guys, and I’ll miss them tremendously next year,” Sullivan said. “It will be a whole different year next year in the locker room. I haven’t gotten past (Saturday’s loss) yet but it’s going to be different next year without them.

“We see all the work and the effort that those guys have put into this program and it’s inspiring for the younger guys to see that.”

And will the Black Bears be able to live with the fact that they did not meet expectations?

“Even if we’re out, I still think this team could have done some real damage in the big tournament,” Nyquist said. “But, unfortunately, we won’t have the chance to do that.”

Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be contacted at 791-6415 or at:

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