With loyal fans that could fill any arena close to home and a No. 6 spot in the Pairwise Rankings, the University of Maine hockey team didn’t expect to be at Yost Ice Arena in the Midwest regional. When the Black Bears sat down to watch the selection show last Sunday, they thought they’d be headed to one of the two regional sites in the Northeast – Providence, R.I. or Worcester, Mass. – someplace closer to home.

“We were a little surprised,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead of his team’s reaction to the news that they would play Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The Black Bears have themselves to blame for that, though. Once the No. 1 team in the country, Maine has dropped seven of its last 12 games. That stretch includes a first-round sweep out of the Hockey East Tournament by Massachusetts.

“I think we got a little tired, mentally and physically,” Whitehead said. “I’ve seen that before, and it’s a fine line. We still played some very good hockey at some points during that stretch in February there, that last month of the season where we slumped. Overall, we did not play our best hockey, and we know that.”

But that was almost three weeks ago, and Maine hasn’t played since.

“They’ve had nothing to think about except this game; whereas we’ve had our plates full, just with Ohio State and then Ferris State and the whole league championship,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “I think that was good for our team, but (the Black Bears) have had one thing on their mind, (and that) is that (game) when they get to the tournament. This is what they’re preparing for.”

Maine is led by Martin Kariya, who has 14-35-49 totals on the season. The younger brother of Anaheim Mighty Ducks’ all-star Paul Kariya was also named to the Hockey East’s All-Conference first team.

“He’s as fierce a competitor as you’re going to find, and yet he only has three penalties all year,” Whitehead said of Kariya. “He won the sportsmanship award in our league, and it’s amazing, he could have won the competitor of the year. That’s how remarkable of a player, in my opinion, he is.”

Whitehead also compared Kariya to Michigan captain Jed Ortmeyer, in that their positive approach to the game inspires their teammates.

Between the pipes, the Black Bears split time between freshman Jim Howard and sophomore Frank Doyle.

Howard was a teammate of Michigan starter Al Montoya last season with the U.S. National Team Development Program. The two even roomed together on the road.

“He’s a great guy,” Montoya said. “He’s very competitive in everything he does. He always wants to do it to his best potential. He’s just a great guy all around. We’re friends off the ice.”

Although the two haven’t had a chance to catch up directly yet this season, Montoya said that he often gets updates about Howard’s play from their old goalie coach with Team USA.

On the ice, Howard has struggled a bit of late. In the losses to Massachusetts, the freshman gave up six goals in 40 minutes of play and was pulled from both games.

Howard has been solid on the year, though, posting a 2.45 goals-against average and a 14-6-0 record.

“He’s a very positive kid, very easy-going,” Whitehead said. “He doesn’t get flustered. He’s just very composed, very poised in the net. Many times, with scrambles around the (goal), he seems like the calmest guy on the ice. That’s a pretty good trait for your goalie, you know.”

But as far as playing his former teammate goes, Montoya has other things on his mind.

“That’ll be something special, but I’m looking more forward to the actual game,” Montoya said. “I try not to think about it at all much during the week, I don’t want to be mentally drained or anything. But god, this is the reason you come to Michigan, is to play in games like this.”

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