Hockey preview:UNH vs. University of Maine

Bret Belden

Friday at 7 p.m.; Whittemore Center in Durham, N.H.

Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Alfond Arena in Orono, Maine

UNH is 6-6-2; Maine is 5-7-3

One of the richest traditions at UNH renews for another exciting year this weekend. It’s rivalry weekend here in Durham and that only means one thing: it’s time to “White Out the Whitt.”

The annual rivalry game will be held this Friday, Dec. 2 against long-standing rival Maine. This will be the first meeting between the two teams this season, UNH will also travel to Orono, Maine the following night to battle the Black Bears at Alfond Arena on Saturday.

The white out game vs. Maine always provides a unique atmosphere. The ‘Cat Pack fills the student section to the brim and both teams come out firing as if their seasons lay at stake. After 26 years of coaching UNH hockey, head coach Dick Umile still experiences the awe of the rivalry game.

“I’ve been doing it for a long time, and I get the chills. Still,” Umile said. “There’s nothing like it.”

For many, like senior forward Tyler Kelleher, it will be the last time they take in the sea of white on Friday. But also for many, such as freshman Brendan van Riemsdyk, it will be the first time they take the ice in front of a sure-to-be packed crowd, ushering in the new blood of a deeply-rooted Whittemore Center tradition.

“I’ve been to a few UNH-Maine games from seeing my brothers play [here],” van Riemsdyk said. “I kind of know what it’s like but I don’t know what it’s like from the ice obviously so I’m really excited for it.”

From a game-planning perspective, the ‘Cats are coming off a 3-1 loss to Cornell in the Frozen Apple game at Madison Square Garden last Saturday. With Ara Nazarian expected to crack the starting lineup this Friday, UNH will have some added offensive weapons going into the Hockey East slate of games vs. Maine.

The Wildcats owned the Black Bears last season, going 3-0-1 in the season series. The story of last year was the scoring efforts of the upperclassmen, which included a 7-0 rout in the most recent game at the Verizon Wireless Arena last January. However, for both teams, the dynamic should be much different. UNH lost the majority of its primary scoring attack last season, and since then has been replaced with young talent such as Patrick Grasso and Jason Salvaggio. For Maine, the Black Bears have thrived this season off the rise of its young goaltender Rob McGovern, who has posted a .920 save percentage through 13 games this season.

Early this season, Maine made a competitive statement, beating previously-ranked Quinnipiac 4-3, and received votes in the national rankings during that time. They also come into this matchup riding a 5-1 victory over Brown. Umile notes that the white out game at the Whittemore Center is a spectacle, but a hostile environment is expected for the Wildcats who play at Alfond the following night.

“[Alfond Arena is] one of the best places to play to be quite honest with you,” Umile said. “It’s crazy up there. It’s not just the student section, the adults up there are crazy too.”

The storied rivalry writes its next chapter starting on Friday. Puck drop is set for 7 p.m.

Key Player: Liam Blackburn

Liam Blackburn has been an integral part of the UNH offense in its most recent games this season. He is second among all freshmen in scoring with four goals and eight points, only behind Grasso. In the last five games that Blackburn has played in, he has tallied five points, including two goals and three assists. Blackburn is a key cog in the making of the all-freshmen line of Grasso, van Riemsdyk and himself. Look for Blackburn to find scoring opportunites this weekend.