ORONO — The Maine hockey team is coming off its best four-game stretch of the season.

Now comes its oddest quartet of games.

The Black Bears play only four times in December. All against their most bitter rival, New Hampshire. Each in a different rink.

“It’s UNH week. There’s nothing better than that,” said senior center Will Merchant.

“When I first came in as a freshman, that’s all people talked about was UNH week and you were like, ‘I can’t wait for this game.’ And finally the first one comes through and you’re like, ‘Wow, they were right. It was great.’ And we get to do it for four games now. It’s a big four games for us.”

The sequence starts at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Alfond Arena and continues at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Wildcats’ Whittemore Center in Durham, New Hampshire.

Maine then will take a three-week break and play New Hampshire twice more – Dec. 29 in Portland and Dec. 30 in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Of most importance to Maine (4-8-3, 2-4 Hockey East) is that it has finally discovered some offense. After scoring 11 goals in 11 games without a victory, the Black Bears piled up 15 in weekend sweeps of Vermont and Princeton.

The streak coincides with the move of senior captain Steven Swavely from center to right wing, on a top line with Cam Brown and Blaine Byron. That opened a spot for Merchant to center his own line after spending his previous years in Orono on the wing.

Merchant said he took a few faceoffs one game when a teammate was struggling and won a few. The next thing he knew he was lining up between Nolan Vesey and Brendan Robbins. Merchant had two assists in a Nov. 21 win over Vermont. He had the winning goal and another assist last Friday in a victory over Princeton. He is tied with Byron for the team lead with five goals.

“I don’t mind being low and getting some speed out of the defensive zone and getting some breakaways,” Merchant said of the increased responsibilities in his own zone. “I like it in the way I can keep my feet moving and stay low under the puck and get the puck with speed. Or chips off the boards and use my speed as a player and get around guys.”

For Swavely, the switch has allowed him freedom to roam deeper into the opponents’ zone. He has fired a team-leading 63 shots on net. And although only two of them have gone in so far, he has ringed a few other shots off posts and can sense it’s only a matter of time until the goals start flowing.

“Me and Cam, we do the thing where whoever’s back first plays center. We know we can both play center,” Swavely said. “It kind of gives us both more liberty to play hockey and not be so, ‘I’ve got to be here, I’ve got to be there.’

“If I’m not down low playing center and I’m on the wing I’m closer to getting in the forecheck and can be more aggressive. I know Cam will be back if I get caught deep.”

It has been a fruitful trio. That line produced six goals and nine assists in the four wins.

The turnaround for Maine was weeks in the making, Coach Red Gendron said. As the coaches kept hammering players about generating more shots on net, the team captains – Swavely, Merchant, Brown and defenseman Conor Riley – kept spirits up in the locker room. An eight-game losing streak never threatened to become devastating, they said.

“I thought our team handled it as well as you can handle something like that,” Gendron said. “Lesser human beings would get small, retreat into themselves and look for reasons why they weren’t part of the problem. That’s not what happened here.”

Now Maine gets four cracks at a New Hampshire team that features the top two scorers in the nation. Sophomore forward Andrew Poturalski has 11 goals and 14 assists for 25 points. Junior forward Tyler Kelleher is 6-17–23. Seven of their goals have come on the power play.

The problem for the Wildcats (4-6-3, 1-1-3) has been a defense that ranks 56th of 60 Division I teams by allowing 3.92 goals per game.

That sounds like a perfect opportunity for Merchant and Co. to keep the offense rolling. He’s just excited for four more chances to soak in a heated rivalry, even to play the villain in the games in New Hampshire.

“Their chants are great,” he said of Wildcat fans. “I love to hear it. Sometimes you get a good laugh to hear what people come up with.”

Those laughs are coming a little easier for the Black Bears these days.