At a quick glance, the Hockey East quarterfinal series between the No. 2 seed Northeastern Huskies and No. 7 Maine Black Bears may seem like something of a mismatch.
Northeastern has been one of the powerhouse teams in the country all season long, while Maine has stayed largely out of the national spotlight.
The latter may change starting on Friday, however, if the Black Bears trend of recent strong play continues; Maine rallied to a .500 record on the season with at least one point in 13 of their last 18 games, which includes wins in nine of them.
“We’ve had some ups and downs over the course of our season,” Maine head coach Red Gendron told reporters on a Hockey East conference call on Wednesday morning.
“But at this point, we’ve been playing some of our best hockey of the year down the stretch here, save for one outing at the University of Massachusetts. Our players understand what they have to do on a shift-by-shift basis to be successful and how we need to play. We’re looking forward to a great series at Northeastern.”
The key to beating the Huskies may very well lie between the pipes.
Sophomore Jeremy Swayman, a Bruins draft pick who served as Team USA’s third goaltender during the 2018 World Junior Championships, has allowed one goal or fewer in four of his last six starts leading up to the blowout loss against UMass that Gendron referred to.
“He’s basically carried the load start to finish for us,” Gendron said. “He started every game but one, and that was something different with his development, being the guy every night. He’s one of those players who already has pro habits. He takes care of himself, he loves to work, he loves to be out on the ice and he loves to spend the extra time in the weight room. The Boston Bruins, at whatever point they sign him, they’ll be getting someone who already has a lot of the tools that you normally associate with a successful goalie at the NHL level.”
Those are compliments often associated with the sophomore netminder on the other side of this matchup: Cayden Primeau. A Canadiens draft pick and the son of long-time NHL’er Keith Primeau, the Voorhees, New Jersey, native has posted a whopping five shutouts this season, including a 33-save, 4-0 blanking of the Black Bears back on Jan. 12.
Primeau starred at the most recent Beanpot, winning another Eberly Award as the tournament’s top goaltender, but the experience the team got there as a whole be may crucial in their potential success in the Hockey East playoffs, starting with this upcoming series against Maine.
“What I always talk about with the Beanpot is it’s kind of like playoff hockey, so it prepares you six weeks before you get to the Hockey East Championship,” said Huskies head coach Jim Madigan.
“It’s one-and-done, and you’re playing against quality opponents, whether it be a BU, BC or Harvard. It gives you a replication of what’s going to happen. We know when we get to the Hockey East Tournament that we’re going to play a quality opponent, and in this case, it’s Maine. It gives you that sense of urgency. Your detailed habits have to be really good in that Beanpot setting, and you need to carry over that mentality and mindset when you get into the Hockey East playoffs.”
After an overtime loss to UConn immediately after the Beanpot, the Huskies have won seven of their last eight games, and regardless of the outcome of this series, will have bigger fish to fry in the NCAA Tournament. Overlooking the Black Bears and their 15-15-4 record en route to getting there, however, would be unwise.
“At this point, standings don’t make a difference,” Madigan said. “It’s a two-out-of-three-game series. We have a lot of respect for Maine. We had a tough game against them up there in their building, and we’ve been preparing all this week to play Maine on Friday.”
Mike Ashmore has 17 years of experience covering professional and college sports. You can follow him on all social media channels at @mashmore98.