In some ways, Maine had the toughest road to the Frozen Four of the semifinalist schools. New Hampshire and Minnesota were bye teams while Michigan got to play on home ice in front of its raucous fans. The Wolverines did face tougher opponents, at least on paper, but had the proverbial seventh player from the stands on their side.
Traveling a tough road, however, is nothing new for this year’s Maine club. If the old phrase is true that whatever doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger, the Black Bears will be a very strong opponent in St. Paul. Rocked by the death of legendary coach Shawn Walsh just before the season started, they got off to a rough beginning but have lost only to New Hampshire in their last 12 games.
Put in an almost impossibly difficult position, interim head coach Tim Whitehead has guided Maine to its third Frozen Four berth in the last four years. His no-ego approach has worked where many other coaches might have clashed with the still fresh legend of Walsh in the Black Bear players.
“I would have made a mess of the situation,” says one coach. “Tim was absolutely the perfect guy for that team. I can’t imagine anyone else doing a better job than he has.”
Adds Umile, “Timmy deserves an awful lot of credit, taking over in a very, very tough situation. I congratulate him on a terrific season.”
We’re now well into the second season, however, and Maine must get past UNH to reach the championship game and potentially take its third title in 10 years.
“We’ve seen New Hampshire four times already, much as we had seen BU four times before we played them in the national tournament, so there won’t be a lot of secrets in that matchup,” says Whitehead.
— Tim Whitehead, on the Black Bears’ semifinal matchup
The difference between BU and UNH, though, is that Maine had taken five of six points in recent weeks against BU, a trend the Black Bears continued with a win in the East Regional finals. The results against New Hampshire have not been as promising.
“We saw them in the Hockey East championship only [two] weeks ago and it was a great game,” says Whitehead. “We have a ton of respect for UNH and how they play. We’re looking forward to a great game and obviously we know we’ve got our hands full with them. It’s going to be very challenging.”
In many ways, the two teams are remarkably similar. Both coaches face a question of which goaltender will start. Both have a deep array of offensive weapons. And while UNH swept all of Hockey East’s top statistical categories, Maine came in second in all but penalty kill.
As for the goaltender question, the odds are that Matt Yeats will get the nod in the Maine crease. Mike Morrison carried the Black Bears all year, earning first-team All-Hockey East honors while Yeats slumped. Nonetheless, Yeats had been their playoff goalie in years past and that seems to have happened again. Morrison’s lone start since the Hockey East quarterfinals was against Harvard in the NCAA first round.
“They’ve both been a big boost for us at different points in the season,” says Whitehead. “Mattie Yeats has really come on fire down the stretch and has recaptured the season. At this point, we’ve got two excellent goaltenders to pick from.”
On the offensive end, Maine doesn’t have anyone to quite match Haydar and Hemingway’s gaudy point totals, but still has four players with over 40 points and 10 with more than 20. Niko Dimitrakos is the top gun at 20-28–48, followed by super sniper Colin Shields (29-17–46) and Martin Kariya (16-28–44).
In the form of Peter Metcalf (7-39–46), however, the Black Bears do have the classic quarterbacking defenseman that UNH lacks.
Just as UNH’s contributions from Abbott displayed its depth, Maine got big games at Worcester from Lucas Lawson, Robert Liscak and John Ronan. Ronan, a fourth line freshman, scored the overtime goal to beat Harvard. Lawson scored twice and Liscak once to help topple BU.
“Certainly UNH and ourselves do have some players who can take the pressure off the other players on our team who are normally recognized as the go-to guys,” says Whitehead. “We definitely have a handful of those.
“Our games at the regional were a reflection of that with John Ronan, one of our freshmen, scoring the overtime winner that was certainly a big boost for us. The following night against Boston University, we again had a couple of guys who are not at the top of our scoring bracket putting pucks in the net. It’s been a plus for us all year.”
While Maine’s depth and fourth-in-the-country offense will challenge UNH’s defense, the same is even more true in reverse. The game will likely be won and lost in how the Black Bears play in their own end against the nation’s top offense.
“Having played New Hampshire four times,” says Whitehead, “it’s tough to balance your defense against them because they have a lot of weapons.”
This will become critical when UNH is on the power play. The Wildcats rank second only to St. Cloud on man advantage efficiency, while Maine’s penalty kill finished in the middle of the pack in Hockey East. What’s more, until holding BU to a 1-for-5 mark when a man up in the NCAA quarterfinals, Maine had allowed an alarming percentage of power-play goals in recent weeks: 1-for-2 (BU, Hockey East semifinals); 2-for-4 (UNH, Hockey East finals); and 1-for-3 (Harvard, NCAA first round).
“Certainly that’s a key area anytime you go against UNH, which has the top power play in our league,” says Whitehead. “Our penalty kill has improved, but there’s no question that we have to be at the very top of our game against UNH. They have a lot of weapons, so we can’t be too worried about one particular player because then the next guy in line is going to burn you.
“We have a few things that we have to improve on, but in general I just think we have to work harder, quite frankly, on our penalty kill. Stop and start more, get our sticks in lanes and do some of the little things that really make a smidgen of a difference [between] a goal or a puck that hits the post.”
Maine does hold an advantage in Frozen Four experience. The Black Bears have only two seniors — Metcalf and Dimitrakos — who competed in the 1999 championship game against New Hampshire. (Alfie Michaud was the goalie; Morrison was a backup and Yeats redshirted.) However, eight juniors are on the roster from the 2000 edition that reached the Frozen Four and even this year’s sophomores won an overtime thriller over Minnesota last year before just falling short against eventual champion Boston College.
While few in number, the four seniors have been as instrumental in keeping their team on track as any other in recent memory.
“If there was ever a tough year to be a senior at Maine, this was it,” says Whitehead. “Our guys have done a tremendous job. Peter Metcalf, who is our captain, has been exceptional. He’s a fierce competitor.
“He’s tough on the other players on the team. He’s certainly been a big help to myself during those quiet moments when the coaching staff is not around. He’s been a very positive influence on his teammates.”
As for Whitehead, he’s not feeling any additional pressure because of the “interim” tag still attached to his title. Nor is any of that trickling down to his players.
“I really have not felt a lot of that pressure this year, for whatever reason,” he says. “I can’t really explain it, but I’ve been at peace with my responsibility here. Obviously, I’ve had a pretty easy job of it considering who my assistant coaches are. They’ve been unbelievable. That’s made my job pretty darn easy.
“As far as the pressure of the game and so on, I don’t really feel there should be any pressure if you’re prepared and you’re ready to go. Certainly, there are going to be some butterflies, but those are the fun ones. We’ll be ready to go.”