ORONO — Dan Kerluke, an assistant coach for the University of Maine men’s ice hockey team, has a better idea than most of what to expect from the Black Bears when they open their season tonight at Alfond Arena against visiting Quinnipiac University of Hamden, Conn.
Even so, he’s curious to see how Maine’s eight first-year players handle their initial taste of college hockey.
“Realistically, we don’t have a great sense of what we have at the moment,” Kerluke said from his office on a recent afternoon. “We like what we’ve seen so far, but we’re very young.”
The Black Bears host Quinnipiac of the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference at 7 tonight.
In a preseason poll sponsored by USA Hockey and USA Today, neither Maine nor Quinnipiac was ranked among the nation’s top 15 teams. Each school received 24 votes, however, putting them tied for second behind Harvard (58) among those in the rest of the pack.
Maine also has an exhibition game scheduled for 4 p.m. Sunday against the University of New Brunswick. The Black Bears first Hockey East contest will be in late October in Providence, R.I.
“It’s a bit awkward,” Kerluke said about having an exhibition follow the season’s first game, and playing that game after three weeks in which, because of NCAA rules, the coaches could spend only two on-ice hours per week with the team. “But the way the schedule worked out, this was the only way to get it done.”
The Black Bears finished fourth in Hockey East last season with a 15-10-2 league record and reached the championship game. Overall, they were 23-14-3 and returned to the NCAA Tournament after an absence of four years.
Four of last season’s top five scorers have moved on, either because of graduation (Spencer Abbott, Brian Flynn, Ryan Hegarty and Will O’Neill) or from turning pro (Matt Mangene, with Philadelphia).
“I think we should be all right,” said Joey Diamond, a senior who scored a team-high 25 goals last season. “We had a lot of offense last year. We’d win high-scoring games and we know going into this year it’s going to be kind of the opposite.”
Returning in goal is junior Dan Sullivan, who recorded 30 or more saves on 10 different occasions, including a career-high 39 in the Hockey East championship against Boston College.
The Black Bears also return five veteran defensemen and 10 forwards along with back-up goalie Martin Ouellette. Two of those defensemen, seniors Mark Nemec and Mike Cornell, will serve as captains along with Diamond.
Those three have been leading practices without the coaches for the past month.
“I love the mentality of this team,” said Sullivan, the goaltender. “We’re a hard-working group of guys and we’re not taking anything for granted. We know we’re going to have to work for every loose puck, every goal, every win.”
Tonight’s game is the fourth meeting between Maine and Quinnipiac, which moved up to Division I in 1998, all of them in Orono. The Black Bears own a 17-1 scoring advantage, but the teams haven’t played since 2005.
Quinnipiac is coming off a 20-14-6 season, the 16th in a row the Bobcats finished with a winning percentage of .500 or better. They’ll also have the services of Jordan Samuels-Thomas, a red shirt last season after transferring from Bowling Green, where he led the team in scoring in each of his first two seasons.
“They’re a team that’s going to win a lot of games,” Kerluke said, “so this could mean a lot for our pair-wise ranking.”
Remembering a moment from February of 2011, when a Maine team on the NCAA bubble lost a 5-4 decision to New Hampshire when a Gustav Nyquist shot struck the post of an open goal in the final minute, moments before UNH raced up ice for the winning goal, Kerluke said the results of this opening game may even tip the balance of a tournament bid next March.
“We could be fighting for an NCAA playoff spot,” he said, “in our first game of the season.”