The Black Bears took small but worthy strides last season under head coach Red Gendron, finishing in a tie for fifth in Hockey East and hosting a first-round playoff series, dispatching hated New Hampshire in two games.
There's no reason to believe the Bears can't climb even further this season. The league's coaches seem to believe so, as Maine was tabbed fifth in the league's preseason poll, behind Boston College, Providence, Boston University and Northeastern, the latter of whom lost quite a bit of talent.
A hockey team is always built from the cage and up, and the Black Bears have a talented sophomore goaltender in Boston Bruins draft pick Jeremy Swayman, who had an outstanding freshman campaign. Swayman gives Maine a chance to win day in and day out, and the Bears have a capable backup in senior Rob McGovern.
Maine will also be balanced up front with the returns of Chase Pearson, Mitch Fossier, Eduards Tralmarks, and the addition of Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup, who tore up the USHL last year. Guys like Emil Westerlund, Ryan Smith and Adrian Holesinsky are valuable.
Defensively, Rob Michel and Pat Holway are two of the best in the conference. Michel is a valuable power-play quarterback and has a lethal shot from the point. Alexis Binner and Brady Keeper, both sophomores, had solid rookie campaigns, and freshman Simon Butala is a valuable addition.
Last season was great, but in order for Gendron to earn that contract extension he received a year ago, the Bears need to get to the Hockey East semifinals in Boston.
On paper, it's a team that is capable of achieving that. With only eight Hockey East playoff spots up for grabs - and I'm glad the league is doing away with this "everyone makes the playoffs" nonsense - getting a top-four spot and securing a best-of-three series at the Alfond in March is an essential first step.
Taking care of business - especially at home - against the league's bottom feeders is a top priority. That's something Maine couldn't do last year and it cost the Bears a top-four finish in Hockey East. But Maine is a year older, and I have a feeling they'll take care of the likes of UNH, Vermont, Merrimack and UConn, all of whom are pegged to finish near the bottom of the league.
Prediction: Maine will finish fourth in Hockey East, dispatch Northeastern in the league quarterfinals, upset Boston College on Causeway Street and play nemesis Providence College for the league championship, and sneak into the NCAA Tournament.
Gendron's gotta beat the Friars at SOME point, right?