March 23, 2007 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Frozen Five

Maine Gets Fifth to Knock Off UMass

by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Talk about March Madness.

On Saturday night, the Maine Black Bears — a storied program with five Frozen Four appearances since 1999 — will face off against Hockey East foe Massachusetts, a program that until this season had never even played in the NCAA tournament. But as if the storyline of a Frozen Four berth on the line isn't enough, the two teams are facing for a remarkable fifth time this month.

And UMass has won all four so far.

The first weekend of March, the Minutemen swept a two-game weekend series to position itself in fourth place in the final Hockey East standings, giving themselves a chance to host a playoff series the following weekend.

Their opponent? Maine, of course. And the result? An epic two-game sweep that sent UMass to the Hockey East Final Four and gave Maine a full two weeks to think about it.

"It was very difficult, on the road, dropping one game, then dropping another one," said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. "And then having to go back there the next weekend was tough. I was actually proud of how we played. We played hard, but they're such a strong team that they'll burn you."

The Black Bears and Minutemen are certainly no strangers to one another in the playoffs either. In 2003, UMass and then-goaltender Gabe Winer swept Maine in a best-of-three Hockey Easy quarterfinal series. And in 2004, the two squads played a triple overtime game in the league championship game, with Maine victorious 2-1. It was the longest game in Hockey East playoff history.

On Saturday night, with a trip to St. Louis on the line, they will meet again in what is quickly becoming quite the rivalry in Hockey East. And for the Black Bears, they certainly haven't forgotten what it felt like to be on the losing end to UMass four consecutive times.

"It didn't feel good at all, and then there was added pressure on us to make the [NCAA] tournament," said Maine goaltender Ben Bishop. "Now we don't have to worry about that, and there's a little less stress on us. Hopefully we can clear those four games out of our heads."

For Bishop, the task of clearing the four games from his head should likely be a little easier than for the rest of his team. After all, 6-foot-7 sophomore did not even play in those games as he was recovering from a groin injury. Instead, freshman Dave Wilson suffered the loss in each game.

Still, even for Bishop, the whole experience wasn't very much fun.

Said Bishop, "It's tough, losing four straight any time, and then when it's to the same team ... And not being able to go on the trip and having to listen to it made it even worse."

Friday afternoon, after UMass toppled Clarkson 1-0 in overtime, the discussion around the arena turned to the possible rematch on Saturday night. For the Black Bears, it provided extra motivation.

"They've obviously had our number," said Bishop. "When we saw that they won tonight, it sort of boosted us up again. We really want to play them."

Earlier in the day, before the Maine/St. Cloud matchup, the possibility of the rematch was broached to UMass captain Matt Anderson as well, but the West Islip, N.Y., native deftly dodged the question with politican-like ease.

"We're excited about the challenge that lies ahead of us," said Anderson vaguely, drawing laughs from the press room. "We're humbled to be in the company that we are, but we're excited and looking forward to the challenge. We're so focused on what's going on right now, staying in the present, but now we're looking forward to the challenge."

A primary challenge for each team will be solving each respective goaltender. After all, Bishop allowed only one goal on 34 St. Cloud shots on Friday night, while Minutemen netminder Jon Quick stopped all 33 shots he faced as he shut out the Golden Knights of Clarkson.

Said Bishop of his counterpart, "They play their system very well, and they have a great goaltender. We're going to have to take his eyes away."

Black Bears captain Michel Leveille also commented on the looming rematch, admitting that, even though he did not watch UMass play earlier in the afternoon, he really didn't need to.

"We played against them enough that we know what they're doing," said Leveille. "They're a great team, and it's going to be a hard fought battle. We're definitely going to make the most out of it. We've got a second chance."

Well, technically, a fifth chance.

"How can you not respect a team that just beat you four times in a row?" asked Whitehead. "Certainly, this is going to be a tough challenge for us.

"The game takes on more significance and more excitement, but as far as the revenge factor, we just need to focus on the task at hand, and that's the first period of tomorrow night's game."

So here we are again, with UMass and Maine set to go on Saturday night. For the fifth time in three weeks.

And for a trip to the Frozen Four.

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