As the college hockey regular season was coming to a close, things were looking up for Maine. The Black Bears needed just 1 point over their final three games to clinch a bye and proceed directly to the Hockey East quarterfinals. But all three games were against first-place Boston College, which was playing to clinch the regular-season title.
The Eagles did just that, sweeping all three games, which resulted in Connecticut receiving the last bye. Maine, meanwhile, will play a first-round series against New Hampshire this weekend. The teams have played three times this season, with the Black Bears winning once in overtime and the other two games ending in ties.
Maine (16-14-4) enters as the sixth seed, while UNH finished in last place at 10-18-6, having won just once since December.
“Everybody is 0-0-0 right now,” said Maine coach Red Gendron. “What’s happened in the past . . . doesn’t matter.
“The game is going to be played between two very good programs, two programs that have enjoyed an intense rivalry for as long as Maine as had hockey. That’s what’s exciting about all this. We’re playing our biggest rival, and I think they feel the same way about us.”
UNH coach Dick Umile, who is retiring at the end of the season, echoed Gendron’s sentiment.
“The rivalry is one of the best in college hockey,” said Umile. “Every time we play, it’s a battle. I think we match up well.“
Senior Danny Tirone has started 13 playoff games in goal for UNH, while Maine freshman Jeremy Swayman, drafted by the Bruins in the fourth round in 2017, will be making his first postseason start.
In another first-round matchup, Merrimack and UMass Lowell will play each other for the second consecutive weekend. The schools split a home-and-home series last weekend, with Merrimack prevailing at home, 4-1, and UMass Lowell winning, 5-0, in the season finale.
The series will be played at Tsongas Arena, as the River Hawks are the seventh seed with a 17-17-0 record, while Merrimack is the 10th seed at 10-19-4.
Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy sees a benefit to the fact that the teams faced off last weekend.
“It’s a little simpler in the sense that we’ve already broken down the film and put together a game plan,” said Dennehy. “It’s not going to be easy. Nothing in this league is easy. But it’s a little simpler for sure.”
The proximity of the schools helps as well.
“To be able to stay at home even though we’re on the road, and not have to travel is beneficial as well,” he said.
“One of the things we’re talking about with our student body is that this is a Merrimack Valley rivalry. I wasn’t here in the Division 2 heyday, but these two teams battled ferociously. This is the first time in my tenure that we’ve played them in the playoffs. I think it’s great.”
The only time the two teams faced each other in the Hockey East playoffs was in 1994. UMass Lowell coach Norm Bazin was on the ice in that series, registering a hat trick in the final game for a River Hawks squad that rolled to the NCAA tournament.
“There wasn’t too many hat tricks, so you remember the one you had in college,” said Bazin.
“Every series in Hockey East is hard-fought, and we expect a game of inches against Merrimack and it’s going to be a great series.”
The other first-round series kicks off Thursday night, with ninth seed Vermont taking on eighth seed Massachusetts.
The Catamounts (9-18-7) spent part of the season in last place but finished up strong to avoid the cellar. They will travel to Amherst to face a UMass team that went 15-17-2, including a pair of wins over UConn and Providence to conclude the season.
Another hotly contested series featuring New England teams will take place in the first round of the ECAC tournament, when Yale (15-13-1) hosts Quinnipiac (14-16-4).
It’s been a disappointing season for both teams, who just five years ago faced each other in the Frozen Four. Quinnipiac started the season ranked nationally, and swept a pair of games at Northeastern in October, but it’s been a struggle since for the Bobcats.
Both teams will be looking to salvage their season by eliminating a neighboring rival.Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney