The University of Maine and Merrimack battle this weekend for a berth in next week’s Hockey East Final Four, and more.

This could be also serve as an elimination game, deciding who goes to the NCAA Tournament.

“Most likely,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “That’s what we’re assuming.”

Maine (20-11-3), seeded fourth in the conference playoffs, will host No. 5 Merrimack (17-10-7) in a best-of-3 series, starting tonight at Alfond Arena.

Game 2 is Saturday. A third game, if necessary, is Sunday. All the games start at 7 p.m. and will televised locally (WPME-TV).

Maine is tied for ninth in the Pairwise Rankings, the system that is similar to the one used by the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Merrimack is tied for 14th.

The NCAA Tournament is comprised of 16 teams — five conference champions and 11 at-large invitees..

If Maine lost two games to Merrimack, it could easily drop out of contention. The Warriors would likely be done with two losses to Maine.

This is familiar territory for the Black Bears, who have been on the brink of reaching the NCAA tournament the previous two seasons, but were stopped by a loss or losses in the Hockey East playoffs.

“Nothing we haven’t seen the last two years,” Whitehead said. “We’ve been in that bubble area — fighting every game — we’re used to it.”

Maine made a charge through the 2010 Hockey East tournament as underdogs, needing the title to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Maine lost the title game 7-6 in overtime to Boston College.

Last year, Maine was the fifth seed in Hockey East, and on the bubble in regards to an NCAA bid. The Black Bears were swept in a quarterfinal series at Merrimack.

Now the Warriors must travel to the Alfond Area. They broke an incredible 14-year winless streak in Orono at the start of the season, with a 2-1 victory. And Merrimack has been a decent road team this year with a 7-5-1 record.

“Part of it is having a good veteran corps,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said, “a lot of seniors who have played tough games. Whether we drive to Orono or Timbuktu, all that matters is what is happening between the glass.”

What happens with Merrimack will be mostly defensive. The Warriors feature the second-best defense in Hockey East, allowing 2.26 goals a game. Goalie Joe Cannata has a 2.19 goals-against average.

Maine counters with the third-best offense in the league (3.5 goals a game), the best power play (27.8 success rate), and one of the best lines in the country, with Spencer Abbott, Brian Flynn and Joey Diamond — they rank 1-2-3 in scoring in Hockey East.

Still, Maine has scored a total of only five goals in three games against Merrimack this year — two losses and a tie.

“They’re an offensive juggernaut. You have to be very respectful and make sure you get on the right side of the puck,” Dennehy said. “We’ve had some success forcing them to defend. Offensive players don’t like to play defense. The further away the puck is from your net, the better.”

But Dennehy knows the Black Bears’ strength is more than offense.

“Anyone who saw the Maine-UNH game (a 1-0 Maine win last Saturday) — they can defend,” Dennehy said. “(Goalie) Dan Sullivan seems to be coming into his own.”

Merrimack was ranked No 1 in the country earlier in the season. Since then, they have struggled at times, including a 6-7-4 record since New Years’ Day. But that included a 1-5-2 mark against the likes of Boston College, Boston University and UMass-Lowell.

“I would argue that there is probably not a tougher second half in the country,” Dennehy said. “I really like how we came through it. We’re battle-tested.”

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.