If this weekend's series in Orono is anything like last year's between the two teams, the Black Bear faithful at Alfond Arena will be treated to two terrific hockey games between Maine and Notre Dame.
Maine won the first game, 2-1, before Notre Dame salvaged the series split with two last minute goals a night late for the 3-2 final. All four of Notre Dame's goals in last year's series were scored by seniors.
This series could have huge implications in the league standings with both teams looking to make up for points lost over recent games. The Fighting Irish enter the weekend in a tie for fifth place with Vermont, but have only taken two points out of the last possible eight. The Black Bears are in 10th, and missed an opportunity to pick up valuable points against a team it was near in the standings when dropping three of four points against UConn last weekend.
Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson values puck possession in his game plan. The Fighting Irish don't always do a good job of getting pucks to the scoring areas, but they will maintain the puck a lot along the boards and generally do a good job of cycling. At Northeastern on Jan. 24, Notre Dame outshot the Huskies, 5-2, in the first period.
Irish sophomore Vince Hinostroza is one of the best passers in college hockey. His 21 assists certainly indicate that, but more than just that, the Chicago Blackhawks prospect makes some remarkable passes. In that game at Northeastern, his cross ice pass that he zipped through a narrow seam led to a power play goal in the first period. He's got the ability to really put a nice touch on his short passes as well as the cross-ice passes. He's a creative player with good vision.
Notre Dame junior forward Mario Lucia, the son of Minnesota coach Don Lucia, is a gifted goal scorer, but plays a perimeter game at times. His biggest knock is that he doesn't go hard enough into the slot. A lot of his goals are snipes from the top of the circle. He's got a pro-ready shot, but to truly make it to the next level, he'll have to become more of a presence in the nitty gritty areas.
New York Islanders prospect Robbie Russo gets a lot of attention on the blue line, and rightfully so. He's good with the puck, has good vision and does a good job with zone exits. However, keep an eye on freshman Jordan Gross. He's the second leading scorer among Irish defenseman and leads all rookies nationally. He's very good in his own zone and plays with a lot of poise back there for a freshman.
Expect to see Chad Katunar to start the series after he played in the team's win against UNH on Saturday. Freshman and Buffalo Sabres prospect Cal Petersen had gotten a few consecutive starts and was playing well prior to this past Friday.
For Maine, neither Devin Shore nor Ben Hutton have produced offensively at the rates they did last year that earned each of them a spot on the All-American teams. Shore is still an impactful player and other teams have centered their defense around stopping No. 94.
One player who is vastly better than the last time the Irish and Black Bears faced off is sophomore Blaine Byron, a Pittsburgh Penguins prospect who has surpassed his freshman goals, assists and points total. More than just his scoring, he's playing better away from the puck and his skill is more evident. Recently he's been on a line with Cam Brown, a small, but really fast water bug type forward, and Cam Pecararo, another shifty forward out of Waterloo in the USHL.
Maine's biggest weakness lately has been its inability to play a complete 60 minutes. The team will do a good job for large stretches, but then get caught flatfooted or making other defensive lapses. The goaltending has improved statistically, but soft goals have still be an issue.
Keys to the series:
If Notre Dame can execute its game plan, dominate possession and prevent Maine's top two lines from generating offensive chances, it could be a long weekend for the home team.
The Black Bears could make it a difficult weekend for the Irish if they get the home crowd into the game early. Maine needs to come out strong, bring intensity and maybe score a quick goal. Maine's top two lines need to play up to expectations this weekend.