BOSTON — Hockey East head coaches figure Maine will be right in the middle of things this winter.

In the league’s annual coaches poll, the Black Bears were ranked fifth among the 10 Hockey East programs, behind New Hampshire and ahead of both Northeastern and Providence, which tied for sixth.

Boston College, the defending NCAA champion, is ranked first with UMass-Lowell second and Boston University third. Merrimack, Massachusetts and Vermont are ranked eighth, ninth and 10th, respectively.

Last March the Black Bears reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007 ended a remarkable run of nine straight appearances that began with their second national title in 1999. The four years without national post-season play marked the program’s longest drought since Maine first reached the tournament in 1987.

“Any time you can reach that tournament in Division I hockey, it’s a good feeling, but particularly at Maine, where we’ve had a proud tradition of getting there every year,” said Tim Whitehead, entering his 12th season as head coach in Orono. “Perhaps we were a little spoiled when we made those three Frozen Fours in four years and people just took it for granted.”

Whitehead spoke Tuesday afternoon at the league’s annual pre-season gathering at Legends inside the TD Garden, where all 10 head coaches assembled to talk about the upcoming college hockey season. Maine finished fourth in Hockey East last season with a 15-10-2 league record but advanced to the championship game. Overall, the Black Bears were 23-14-3 after being eliminated by 2011 national champion Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Gone from that team are four of the top five scorers. Graduation claimed Hobey Baker finalist Spencer Abbott along with Brian Flynn, Ryan Hegarty and Will O’Neill. Matt Mangene, who had a year of eligibility remaining, instead signed with Philadelphia.

“There’s no doubt we’ve lost some key players,” Whitehead said. “Last year’s senior class was one of the best we’ve ever had at Maine.”

Their departure means opportunity for several promising newcomers. Including red-shirt freshman Bill Norman, nine new players will grace the Alfond Arena ice this fall and winter.

“These guys are going to need to contribute right away,” Whitehead said. “So I think it’s exciting for them. The team has embraced them. They understand that this year’s class needs to help right away, so we’re looking forward to seeing how they adjust.”

NCAA rules allow eight weekly hours of off-ice conditioning until Sept. 15th, when two of those hours can be on ice.

“Other than that,” Whitehead said, “captains are running practice and doing a great job.”

Among the returning Black Bears are Joey Diamond, the team’s leading goal scorer with 25, and goaltender Dan Sullivan, who sported a 2.59 goals against average.

The season opens with a home game Oct. 6 against Quinnipiac. The first Hockey East game will be at Providence Oct. 26. This season’s Frozen Four is scheduled for April in Pittsburgh.

“I think our league this year is going to be extremely competitive,” said Providence second-year coach Nate Leaman, who got his start as a volunteer assistant while working toward his master’s degree in biology at the University of Maine. “Every game, every point is going to be extremely tough.”

A protracted NHL labor dispute may shine a brighter light on college hockey this winter, which may result in more television exposure.

“But in the long term,” said league commissioner Joe Bertagna, “I don’t think it’s good for anybody in hockey that the NHL is not playing.”

Bertagna announced a partnership Tuesday with Front Row Marketing Services – which sent two representatives from its Portland branch – to sell naming and title rights to the men’s and women’s Hockey East tournaments.

Next year Notre Dame will become the 11th Hockey East team followed a year later by the University of Connecticut.

One rule change this season will allow coaches to use a timeout, if they haven’t already used it, to request video review for an egregious error that results in a goal, during a playoff or tournament game.

“What they’re talking about is a blown offsides call, and not by a sliver but real clear,” said Whitehead, who serves on the NCAA Rules Committee. “There was one in the playoffs last year. … You just want to get the calls right whenever you can, but you don’t want to go too far and now the game’s controlled by video and it slows the whole thing down.”

Maine will hold its own media day Wednesday afternoon in Orono. In the USA Today/USA Hockey national college hockey poll, the Black Bears were not ranked among the top 15 teams, although they would have tied for 17th (with Quinnipiac) if the rankings went 20 deep.

The national poll ranked Boston College first, UMass-Lowell seventh and Boston University 13th.

 

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