Teams that reach the NCAA tournament almost always have their game-breaking stars: the top scorers, the all-league selections, perhaps even All-Americans.
But sometimes in the march to a national title, the game-breakers get stymied and the unsung players get their chances to be heroes.
While Maine’s stars were hardly stymied in its 4-2 win over Ohio State, the Black Bears still received key contributions from players who aren’t atop the limelight totem pole.
Bobby Stewart could have stayed at Alaska-Anchorage and been a go-to player. Instead, convinced that he was on a team that at the time was going nowhere, he transferred to Maine, where as a senior he skates not on the first line but on the checking unit.
That didn’t stop him from scoring the first goal of the game against Ohio State, however, while also shutting out OSU’s top line.
“Our line was matched up almost all night with the Hugo [Boisvert] line,” he said. “I think we did a pretty good job against a really good player. I hadn’t played against him before tonight, but now I know why he’s a Hobey Baker candidate. He controls a lot of the pace of the game.
“But we…didn’t let him make the neutral-zone transition that would give them two-on-ones or three-on-twos.”
Adding a goal of his own was icing on the cake.
“The thing is that when you’re a defensive player and you play games like this and you play against the top lines, you also get chances to score because they might not be as good defensively as you are so you can get offensive opportunities,” he said. “Luckily, I scored.”
In this writer’s eyes, Doug Janik is one of the best defensive defensemen to come into Hockey East in some time. He played with Team USA in the World Junior Tournament during the holiday season, and his absence on the Black Bear blue line at the time was felt. He’s also shown a surprisingly deft offensive touch, scoring three goals and adding 13 assists.
His omission from the league’s all-rookie team was surprising, but only until one remembers that defense rarely equates to postseason recognition.
Against Ohio State, Janik supplied both the consistent defense and a nice offensive play on a two-on-one, albeit one in which he shot wide.
“Janik played great defense,” said coach Shawn Walsh at the first mention of unsung heroes. “He had poise [on the two-on-one] and just snapped it wide. How many freshman D can play like that?”
For most of the season, Marcus Gustafsson has played on Maine’s third line, providing 10 goals and 15 assists. On this night, however, Walsh moved Gustafsson to the Black Bears’ top unit with Steve Kariya and Cory Larose.
“We played together for almost a month during Christmas,” he said. “We have great chemistry. I think we kind of click together.”
They clicked with two third-period goals against Ohio State, Gustafsson scoring one of the biggest ones of the game to stretch Maine’s lead to 3-1.
As a new first-liner and former third-liner, Gustafsson made sure to point out the contributions of his teammates.
“We don’t just rely on the top line,” he said, noting that the second and third units scored Maine’s first two goals. “That’s what makes us so good because we have four lines that can do damage. Tonight everybody contributed.
“That’s what you need. That’s what wins championships.”
Alfie Michaud could be the prime “I don’t get no respect” player on the Black Bears. He posted a 2.41 GAA and a .904 save percentage, but inexplicably didn’t rate as even an honorable mention when All-Hockey East honors were announced.
Perhaps that raised the stakes just a trifle more for him as Maine took on Ohio State’s All-CCHA netminder, Jeff Maund.
“I was really looking forward to it and I’m sure that he was too,” said Michaud. “You get up to play great goaltenders. You just have to go out there and do what you have to do to get a W.”
While Maund had by far the tougher chances, Michaud faced the age-old problem of staying sharp while the quality chances came few and far between.
“I just tell myself to be focused and wait for the next shot,” he said. “I play hockey games second by second. I don’t worry about minutes. I don’t worry about periods. I just know that there are 3600 seconds in a hockey game and that’s how I approach it, second by second. You have to be focused every single second of the whole game.”
While Michaud might have felt that he could have even turned in a shutout, he still made the big saves that the team needed. In particular, he stoned one of OSU’s top offensive stars, Eric Meloche, in the first minute of the second period with the score still 2-1. It was one of those key plays that games hinge on.
“He was solid,” said Walsh. “He makes saves look easy. He’s really on his angles and he made a couple big ones.”