UMaine hosts rival UNH in important Hockey East series

DURHAM, N.H.– The forecast for Orono, Maine this weekend looks sunny but cold, highs reaching only the mid twenties. But look into the forecast for the Maine Blackbears just inside the Alfond Arena, and you’ll see a much different forecast — a mixture of unquenchable noise and high emotion can be expected with 100% chance of intensity.

And precipitation? You can bet both teams are bringing the rain in this storm.

The UNH Wildcats will take the trek up north to take on the Maine Black Bears in a two game stint that is sure to pack extra thrill and excitement, and most definitely an extra punch.

In a rivalry that dates back further than most can remember, the Wildcats and Black Bears games have been notoriously aggressive, but ultimately exhilarating in all aspects–especially when both teams have garnered success during the season.

UNH enters the matchup this weekend first in Hockey East and a 12-3-3 conference record. Conversely, UMaine trails by seven points, giving them the fourth spot in the division with a 9-6-2 record. But the seven point difference between first and fourth don’t give UNH coach Dick Umile any sort of relief or satisfaction–he knows better than that.

“They are obviously playing very well,” Umile said. “They are in a position to take a couple keys wins to put them right back in the hunt. That being said, it’s just going to be a battle all weekend and we know that.”

After a disappointing beginning to its season and coming out with a 4-7-1 record in its first 12 games, Maine has ricocheted back and has miraculously improved to 10-2-2 in the last 14 games. Much of the success can be attributed to their goaltender Scott Darling who has put up a 12-3-3 record with a .908 save percentage this season. Pair him up with a reinvigorated team, and you have the ingredients to a turn-around season.

“Obviously Darling’s made a difference,” Umile said. “And they are always a threat back there on defense. And their power play is always very good. It’s a great rink to have a good power play. I mean a lot of stuff happens. They shoot the puck hard and they like to shoot form the point. The rink fits well with that philosophy.”

Speaking of their power play, the Black Bears have the best numbers in the nation in that category.  Converting on about 30 percent of their power play opportunities (42 goals on 140 tries), that specialty situation has played out well for UMaine. And in a game against arch rival UNH, there is no doubt that specialty teams are going to be important.

“Our shorthand has been okay as of late, and we will need to be good this weekend that’s for sure,” Umile said. “Because it’s going to happen–it’s going to be very physical, tense game, so there are going to be power plays. We are going to need to do well on our end as well.”

But just how important? According to UNH junior forward Mike Sislo, the anticipation for the weekend is unlike any other during the season, from warm ups until the last buzzer.

“It’s a little intimidating, especially during warm ups when you get a puck thrown down at you from the stands,” Sislo said. “But, it’s a small rink, fast ice, so it’s going to be a physical game.”

Despite the bumps and bruises coming in all forms from this game, Sislo, along with his teammates still have the adrenaline running in their veins over what they will experience this weekend.

“ It is one of my favorite places to play, mostly because of the student section and atmosphere it brings and being this time of year,” Sislo said. “Both teams are having success and you know the fans are going to be into it, so it’s going to be fun.”

While the team prepares both physically and mentally for this weekend, UNH’s Dalton Speelman and Greg Burke will be forced to experience their first series in Maine from the crowd. Both Speelman and Burke left the game last Saturday against Merrimack with shoulder injuries and will not play this weekend. While Umile could not give a confident returning date, he was sure they could be out next weekend against Providence as well.

With those two players out, Umile has been busy readjusting lines and plays to fit together. Even with the injuries, however, captain Bobby Butler is confident that the players who will need to fill those voids will do so effectively, especially once they reach the arena and see the atmosphere. Butler, who has garnered a plethora of nominations for various awards and opportunities in the past week (including the Humanitarian Award, and the NCAA Frozen Four Skills Competition), is also the current leading point scorer for the Wildcats against Maine with four goals and one assist.

“We just have to keep our foot on the pedal and keep playing our game up there,” Butler said. “It’s a fun place to play up there for me personally. I like to play up there. I think the younger guys when they see the rink and the atmosphere, they’ll step it up a little and that brings everyone’s game up a little. We are hungry for these two games.”

But when all is said and done, records don’t matter and it’s going to be just two teams looking for four important points and the edge for the rest of the season. And for Dick Umile, it’s all going to come down to the composure of the team and how they handle their surroundings.

“You really have to stay composed because it can really turn around on you,” Umile said. “The puck bounces like crazy. The transition game is always a key up there. We are going to have a couple of–you’re gonna have to weather the storms. There are going to be a couple of storms you are going to have to go through both nights and it’s how you handle that.”

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