ORONO – Imagine the Patriots with Tom Brady on the sidelines, shoulder in a sling. Or the Sox minus David Ortiz’s prodigious swing and million-dollar smile.

The University of Maine hockey team has lived through the nightmare, trying to stay afloat in Hockey East and parallel park its way into the NCAA hockey playoffs while short one accomplished, athletic goaltender.

Ben Bishop was conspicuous by his absence in the Black Bears’ push to the postseason, and not merely because his 6-foot-7, 210-pound frame dwarfs the net. His skills cast an intimidating shadow, too. Even for a storied program with two national championships and numerous Frozen Four banners rippling in the rafters, it’s no fun trying to replace a backstop with 40 wins in less than two full seasons.

“It’s like having your No. 1 quarterback out,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “You’re playing without your leader. What I like about our team is that we haven’t used it as an excuse.”

Maine certainly had an industrial-sized “yeah, but” at its disposal. Nationally ranked and in the thick of the conference chase, as usual, the Black Bears lost their bite almost immediately when Bishop suffered a groin injury after a collision with Trevor Smith of New Hampshire on Feb. 3.

Bishop has played only sporadically since. And while freshman Dave Wilson performed admirably in Bishop’s absence, the second game of the UNH series triggered a tumble that saw Maine lose seven of its last 11 games. The freefall ended in a Hockey East quarterfinal best-of-three sweep at Massachusetts.

Based largely on what the Black Bears accomplished before Bishop’s injury, Maine (21-14-2) received a mulligan from the tournament committee in the form of an at-large bid. Bishop is expected to play when Maine meets St. Cloud State at 6 p.m. Friday in Rochester, N.Y., in the regional semifinals. Only that game and a possible Saturday skirmish with the Clarkson-UMass winner stand between the Black Bears and an unlikely, circuitous route to the championship-round Frozen Four in St. Louis.

“After the selection show on Sunday, everybody is on a real high right now,” Bishop said. “We’ve got to take advantage of it.”

Groin injuries are especially tough on goaltenders. To complicate matters, Bishop’s body type is suited for basketball. For several weeks after the injury, any attempt to get down in his crouch was painful.

“It’s tough when you can walk around all day and not feel pain,” said Bishop. “Then when you try to go into your splits and butterflies, it hits you.”

Bishop’s loss hit Maine in an area that was already its weakest: Defense.

The Black Bears graduated several players that were their linchpin at the blue line over the last four seasons. Bishop benefited from their expertise as a freshman, notching a terrific 21-8-2 mark. He made 33 saves in Maine’s regional final victory over Michigan State.

Considering the revolving door in front of Bishop, this year’s numbers are even better. Bishop is 19-8-2 with a 2.15 goals-against average. He has logged three shutouts while turning away more than 92 percent of shots faced.

“It’s no secret that we have struggled defensively this season,” Whitehead said. “We lost a lot of key guys like (Steve) Mullin and (Travis) Wight that we just haven’t been able to replace. Goaltending and special teams always factor in a big way in (playoff) games.”

Whitehead won’t say for sure who will start Friday between the pipes, but Bishop doesn’t leave room for ifs or last-minute decisions.

“I feel great. I would say if not 100 percent, I’m pretty close,” he said. “I’m able to run and work out without any sharp pain, so it feels good. I’ll be ready to go.”

The NCAA single-elimination format leaves miniscule margin for error. It can also reward a team piggybacking a hot goaltender, and that reality isn’t lost on anyone in the Maine dressing room.

Junior forward Billy Ryan pointed out that Maine out-shot Massachusetts in both games of the Hockey East quarterfinal series, 40-24 and 37-28.

“Knowing that, and knowing now that Bishop is going to be back there in goal, we feel good about our chances this weekend,” Ryan said. “It’s like a new four-game season.”

“Having him back there would be a boost for a lot of reasons, mentally and physically,” Whitehead agreed.

Even though he is only a sophomore, Bishop’s hurry to heal is understandable. He grew up in Des Peres, Mo., only a few miles from the site of this year’s Frozen Four.

The semifinals are scheduled for Thursday, April 5, with the championship game two nights later.

“We’ve got a second life,” Bishop said. “We can’t let it slip away.”


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