In September 2010, as Maria Lewis was set to start her first season in charge of the Maine Black Bears, the Hockey East coaches picked her team to finish last in the eight-team league. That was understandable — the Bears occupied the cellar each of the previous three campaigns.
Senior defenseman Ashley Norum and junior forward Brittany Dougherty were around for some of those rough years when Dan Lichterman was coaching Maine. They didn’t experience the worst of it; a 4-27-3 record with a -77 goal differential in 2007-08 had improved to 6-20-5 and a -22 goal differential by Lichterman’s last season in 2009-10.
“My freshman year, we didn’t have much of a strategy,” Dougherty says. “We didn’t have our freedom to do what we wanted.”
That was reflected in the offensive production, as Maine scored but 63 goals in 31 games that year.
“In the past with coach Lichterman, it was a lot more let’s try not to let them score and more passive almost,” Norum says.
That changed when Lewis took over the reigns of the program.
“One of the things that [our] staff had talked about prior to last season was we can either coach the group that we have, or what we think we have, or we can coach them up to the type of program that we want to be,” Lewis says. “We decided to go that route, even though we knew we could probably lose every game. But what happened was the opposite effect; the players really bought into it, they really started to do some great things, really started to play creative and think outside the box and learn the game, and do a lot of great things. We ended up having that great season last year because of it.”
Under Lewis’ tutelage, Maine surprised. The Black Bears scored 16 goals more than the year before, doubled their win total, and climbed to sixth and earned a spot in the Hockey East tournament for the first time in the careers of any of the players.
“Coach Lewis’ arrival definitely sped up the process,” Norum says. “When she first came in, she changed the whole program around as far as the attitudes of the program and the interactions between the coaching staff and the players. I think just the positive interactions between us has first of all made us trust her and understand her systems and where she’s coming from. That relationship really improves the program in itself.”
In this year’s preseason poll, the Hockey East coaches responded to the Bears’ improvement by picking Maine to finish last once more.
“This comes up all the time, whenever we go into a Hockey East weekend, we think of those coaches voting us last and us just wanting to prove them wrong,” Norum says. “In the past five years, we haven’t been big contenders for Hockey East, so we don’t know if it’s that mindset of, ‘Oh, they’ve always had a hard time, so they’re always going to have a hard time,’ or if they don’t want to accept the fact that we are having success. It really does frustrate us. We had a great season last year, and they still voted us last place. We’re hoping that this year we can kind of prove that it’s not just a fluke, that we’re actually a good team, and we do have success.”
Improvement has continued, as Maine has already exceeded last season’s win total, in part by having a team of complete hockey players.
“I’ve kind of stayed away from, okay, you’re just a passer, and you’re just a checker, and you’re our goal scorer,” Lewis says. “I’ve put the onus on everybody to contribute in one way or another. It hasn’t been a situation where okay, this is our scoring line and let’s just get this other line out to get the scoring line some rest. We’ve had some pretty good balance, but I just think that’s because I try not to separate the roles too much and make sure that everybody feels that they’re involved.”
The Bears have embraced that involvement; every upperclassman has met or exceeded their point production from two years ago, in some cases, dramatically. The scoring adds up, resulting in the most goals in six years.
“We needed some people to put the puck in the net, it’s up for grabs, and everyone can do it; everyone is allowed to do it,” Lewis says. “That piece has been a little bit of a surprise, but definitely a welcomed one.”
Leading the way is Dougherty with 15 goals and 15 assists for 30 points.
“Freshman year, I didn’t know what to expect,” Dougherty says. “I was nervous, it was different, it was a new experience.”
That changed when Lewis took over, and the Chesterfield, Mich., native has responded to her teaching.
“We just worked on things that I alone needed to get better at and we had small-group sessions if we wanted to go to them,” Dougherty says. “I feel it helped a lot, and I really feel she knows what she’s doing.”
That’s not to say defense is neglected. Junior goaltender Brittany Ott has boosted her save percentage up to .924, a personal best. She’s also facing less shots, helping to lower goals against.
“Obviously, we have to take care of our own end; we do try to think defense first,” Lewis says. “Our mindset is more of a winner’s attitude, as opposed to let’s just hope not to lose. I think that’s been a little bit more of the reason for the change. The attitude and the culture that hey, we can do this, and we can have success, and get pucks on net, and good things are going to happen for us, as opposed to let’s just hope that they don’t get too many pucks on our net. It’s just kind of a reverse mentality, and it’s paid off.”
All of the gains have added up a 15-8-6 record, including posting a mark of 9-6-2 in Hockey East. Maine’s 20 league points has it tied for third with preseason pick Boston University, with Providence a point behind in fifth. The Black Bears and Friars will face the same two opponents in opposite order over the regular season’s final two weekends. If Maine can keep up with BU or stay in front of Providence, then Maine will be at home for its first round of the Hockey East tournament.
“This year we had a goal of hosting the playoffs, as far as hosting the first round,” Norum says. “Just having that goal in reach, and if we accomplished it this year, it just shows what determination can do for us. It would be awesome to host the playoffs, especially this being my senior year.”
Nice as that achievement may be, it may not work in favor of the Black Bears. Maine has gone 6-6-4 at home this season, as compared to 9-2-2 on the road.
“I believe it has to do with distractions,” Lewis says. “When you’re on the road, the team is together on the bus, you’re together in the hotel, everything is a controlled environment. When you’re at home, the players are off in different places, whether it be a dorm or their apartment, they’ve got their friends around, they’ve got the different campus activities that are going on throughout the weekend. I think a lot of people think that it’s harder to do well on the road, but I actually believe the opposite, and our record just shows that. Then as we get better as a club, and as we mature as a club, hopefully we can take care of that at home, too.”
Its prowess on the road may serve Maine well as early as this weekend, when it travels to Boston to face Hockey East leader Northeastern for a pair of games. The Bears have done well against the top half of the league, outscoring Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern by a composite 19-16, despite a 3-4 record in those games. The ledger includes a familiar breakdown; Maine is perfect in three road games and has lost four one-goal decisions at home.
The Bears finish up the season at Alfond Arena against border rival New Hampshire.
“It’s about pride, and heart, and determination, and having a rivalry just like adds to all that,” Dougherty says. “It’s great to be on top of them, and for once have them try to catch us.”
After years of sitting atop Hockey East, the Wildcats are now fighting to make the postseason, while the Black Bears are focused on loftier goals.
“Our team has always struggled in the past with winning, but at the same time, our team is really young and we have been getting more and more confident, and the coaching has just been amazing the past two years,” Dougherty says. “I feel our team as a whole is playing up to what to what our standard is, and not what other people judged us to be at the beginning of the season. If we play our best and we pull out four huge wins against these teams, it’s a huge confidence boost.”
Once tournament play arrives, who knows. Maine has a track record of exceeding expectations with a new coach and players that have embraced her positive attitude after experiencing lean years.
“I think even though we inherited these players, I think they’ve really bought into what we’re trying to do,” Lewis says. “We don’t have to wait for our own players to come in here. I think that the group we have now has done a really good job of buying in and wanting to be a part of who we expect to be in the future, and they want to be a part of that now, which has been great.”