UMaine men's hockey looking to keep revival going

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They grinded out a couple of wins last weekend with good goaltending and just enough offense.

Or as University of Maine men’s hockey coach Red Gendron said, “we played to our identity.”

The Black Bears, with a first-round series sweep of New Hampshire in the Hockey East playoffs, already are assured of a winning record and their best season in six years.

Now comes the question: How far can this improved Maine team go?

Sixth-seeded Maine (18-14-4) will be underdogs this weekend in a quarterfinal series at third-seeded Providence (21-8-5).

The winner of the best-of-three series will play in the conference semifinals next weekend at TD Garden in Boston.

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“Maine presents a lot of problems,” Providence coach Nate Leaman said.

Maybe Leaman is just being respectful. His Friars have been in the NCAA tournament the past four years, including a national championship in 2015. They are 15-0-1 in their last 16 games against Maine, including two wins this season.

The Friars can all but guarantee a return to the NCAAs with two victories this weekend.

Maine will have to win the Hockey East tournament to get into the NCAAs. But first it needs to figure out Providence, and do it in Schneider Arena, where Maine hasn’t won since 2010.

Hopeless? No. The Black Bears have played well against the Friars this season.

In a 3-0 loss, played in November in Northern Ireland, the game was tied until late in the second period. Providence scored again midway through the third and added an empty-netter.

The Feb. 9 game at Providence went to overtime. The Friars won 3-2 on a power-play goal with 49 seconds left.

“Our games with Maine were close — really good hockey games — and I expect pretty much the same,” Leaman said.

Leaman said Maine’s revival stems from the arrival of freshman goalie Jeremy Swayman (2.66 goals-against average, .922 save percentage). Swayman made 73 saves in two games against the Friars.

“It’s tough to win in our league without good goaltending,” Leaman said. Maine “has struggled there the last couple of years. (Swayman) came in and solidified that.

“He’s one of the young stars of our league.”

Providence counters with second-year starter Hayden Hawkey in net (2.12 GAA, .916 save percentage). Hawkey got thrown into the regular role unexpectedly last year when Nick Ellis signed with the Edmonton Oilers (it was Ellis who replaced Providence All-American Jon Gillies of South Portland. Gillies now plays for the Calgary Flames).

“We take a lot of pride in developing our goalies here,” Leaman said. “Hayden just keeps getting better.”

One area where Providence has an edge is special teams. Its penalty-kill unit is second-best in the Hockey East. The Friars have 27 power-play goals and allowed 19.

Maine’s penalty-kill unit has struggled. Overall the Black Bears’ special teams allowed 13 more power-play goals than they scored, which is the worst in the league.

In their two games, Maine was 0 of 7 on the power play and the Friars were 3 of 11.

In other Hockey East quarterfinals, No. 10 Merrimack is at top-seeded Boston College; No. 8 Massachusetts is at No. 2 Northeastern; and No. 5 Connecticut is at No. 4 Boston University.

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