The Black Bears are in the henhouse.

Perhaps the last team to get into the NCAA hockey tournament, the University of Maine is also one of the last teams anyone wants to see beneath their own name in the bracket.

Maine (21-14-2) is seeded third among the four teams sequestered in the East Regional at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y. That’s precisely the spot where the Black Bears rose from Hockey East hibernation a year ago in Albany and stormed the Frozen Four.

This year’s quest begins at 6 p.m. tonight against second-seeded St. Cloud State (22-10-7) of Minnesota and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

“It’s a clean slate,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “We’ve been in this situation before. It’s a single-elimination tournament. One bad night and you go home.”

Two good nights, though, and Maine would march on to the championship round April 5 and 7 in St. Louis.

Clarkson (25-8-5) and Massachusetts (20-12-5) collide in Friday’s early semifinal. The two winners face off at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Barring a last-minute change due to injury, Maine-St. Cloud State pits two of the nation’s premier goaltenders.

Huskies senior Bobby Goepfort (17-9-7, 2.24 goals-against average) is a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award, presented to the top player in the nation at any position. Black Bears sophomore Ben Bishop (19-8-2, 2.15) is expected to return to the lineup for his first significant action since suffering a groin injury Feb. 3.

“We’ve played against a lot of good goalies this year, so we know what that’s all about,” said Maine senior forward Josh Soares. “We need to take away the versatility of their forwards.”

St. Cloud State flaunts two fabulous freshman front-liners among its top three scorers. Andreas Nodl led the Huskies with 46 points on 18 goals and 28 assists, including seven power-play tallies and five game-winners. Ryan Lasch (16-23-39) also scored seven times with the man advantage.

Andrew Gordon, a junior, picked up 12 of his team-high 22 goals on the power play.

“Their best player is their goaltender,” said Whitehead, “but they also have two elite forward lines and three elite defensemen.”

Seniors Justin Fletcher and Casey Borer and junior Matt Stephenson lead the resistance in front of Goepfort, a transfer from Providence who has turned away 92.7 percent of shots faced this season.

Teams blazing a trail to the penalty box against Maine do so at their peril, also. Maine lit the lamp 54 times in odd-man situations this season while allowing only 27 power-play strikes.

Maine mirrors St. Cloud State with its balanced scoring. Seniors Michel Leveille (18-23-41) and Soares (19-22-41) head the list. Teddy Purcell produced 16 goals and 24 assists on his way to Hockey East Rookie of the Year honors.

Billy Ryan has 12 goals, Keith Johnson nine, Mike Hamilton and Wes Clark eight each and Keenan Hopson seven. Defensively, senior Mike Lundin, juniors Travis Ramsey and Bret Tyler and sophomore Simon Danis-Pepin have been steady in front of Bishop.

Neither team entered the tournament with dynamite strapped to its skates. Maine lost its last four games (without Bishop) and went 8-9 in its last 17. St. Cloud State enjoyed a 15-game unbeaten streak from Nov. 4 to Jan. 6 but finished 3-3-1 in its final seven.

A flurry of quality early-season wins and perhaps its championship reputation helped the Black Bears bag an at-large bid. Maine makes its ninth straight NCAA appearance, the second-longest active streak.

“We’ve been there,” Lundin said. “We know how to get to the Frozen Four. The seniors are definitely leading by example.”

St. Cloud State last made the tournament in 2003 and is 1-5-1 all-time against Maine.

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