ANAHEIM, Calif. — If you asked coaches what it takes to win a championship, many would tell you good goaltending, great special teams, and plenty of experience.
For the University of Maine Black Bears, goaltending and special teams are part of their year-in and year-out plan. But this year’s club possesses only one player with NCAA tournament experience — Brendan Walsh, who played in two NCAA tournaments with Boston University in 1995 and 1996 before transferring to Maine last season.
So Maine coach Shawn Walsh must look elsewhere to compensate for the lack of experience.
And in this year’s East Regional, what Walsh received from his players can be summed up in one word: balance.
“It was the key this weekend,” said Walsh. “It’s been our key all year.”
Hobey Baker finalist Steve Kariya echoed Walsh’s sentiments.
“It was a big key this weekend and a key all year,” Kariya said. “There’s been a lot of times this year that teams have shut my line down and other guys contribute. That’s why we’ve been so consistent all year long, because we get scoring from all of our lines. [Teams] can’t key on any one line, because our other guys are going to hurt you.”
Saturday night it was the highly-touted first line of Cory Larose, Marcus Gustafsson, and Kariya, as well as senior defenseman David Cullen, that stepped up and drove Maine to its berth in next week’s Frozen Four in Anaheim. Those four players combined for six of the seven goals scored by the Black Bears Saturday, and a total of 13 points.
Their performance came 24 hours after Ohio State held that quartet to only four points in a 4-2 Maine win.
Against Ohio State, Maine depended on players like Bobby Stewart, who entered the tournament with only 12 points this season, but notched a goal against the Buckeyes.
On the same note, Walsh credits his fourth line with the defensive success the Black Bears enjoyed this weekend.
“I felt our fourth line of [Jason] Vitorino, [Jim] Leger, and [Matthias] Trattnig played great. [Clarkson] just couldn’t get out against them.” Walsh noted.
A lot can be said about the defense of the Black Bears. Just three weeks after giving up 11 goals to the University of New Hampshire in the final week of the season, the Black Bears held Ohio State and Clarkson to two goals apiece here in the regionals.
With Cullen getting much of the credit on the Maine defense, players like A.J. Begg, who has only played in 24 games for the Black Bears, can be overlooked. But Walsh didn’t miss his performance this weekend, especially in tonight’s game.
“A.J Begg stepped up and played a great game physically for us defensively,” Walsh said. “He was just a horse and [those are] the kind of things you have to get.”
Walsh was also quick to note that the team’s balance goes beyond the players on the ice.
“My three assistant [coaches] prepared the game plan for Clarkson, specifically the high breakout to get us out of the zone. Gene Reilly and Nate Leaman convinced me to go with that and then after one period convinced us to shadow Erik Cole.
Walsh believes strongly in the experience of assistant coach Grant Standbrook. Now in his 12th year at Maine, his success though his coaching career will be a large part of preparing the team for Anaheim next week.
“Grant Standbrook has five national championship rings on his finger and I’ve got one. We’ve been through enough Final Fours between the two of us to help keep this team on track.”
For only the second time since the NCAA tournament expanded to 12 teams, Maine did not receive a bye into the quarterfinals. But Walsh believes that the longer road will pay off.
“I think [playing twice this weekend] helps this team. I think we need to put the last three weeks behind us. I think we did it this weekend with an explanation point. We’re on a roll now.”
And Walsh and his Black Bears hope to keep on rolling as they head west to the Frozen Four.