For Southern Maine coach Jeff Beaney, a look down the roster finds a lot of Fr. and So. abbreviations after players’ names. Eighteen of the 28 players on the roster are either first- or second-year players. That usually means a lot of development opportunities in real game situations and a maturation process that is battle-tested. Having finished the first half of the season at 5-6-0, it is clear there is still some learning left for the young Huskies, who have exhibited signs that they can compete with anyone in the ECAC East conference.
“We do have a lot of new guys this season,” stated Beaney. “Some are still learning what it means to compete every night and every shift, moving without the puck, covering your responsibilities and just battling to win those all-important one-on-one battles. It is a process for sure, and we have some guys who are getting there quickly and some others that are still catching up with the requirements for playing at the college level.”
One guy who is clearly getting it so far this season is freshman defenseman Alex Pompeo. Pompeo (Hingham, Mass.) came from Bridgton Academy, where he played for former USM defensive standout Jon Lounsbury. Lounsbury was an All-American during his tenure with the Huskies and was a potent offensive weapon. Apparently, some of that must have rubbed off on Alex as he has stepped right in to major minutes and currently leads the team in scoring from his spot on the blue line.
“Alex gets it,” laughed Beaney. “No he really gets it. I haven’t had many kids that come in and just fit right into the flow of the game like he has back there. I also haven’t seen many teams that look for where a particular freshman is on the ice in terms of awareness for his presence, but teams are doing that with Alex so far this season. He has fit in really well and has provided a big lift to the offense. The goals he scored against New England [UNE] in our 5-3 win were huge in the third period. The second one was a highlight-reel job, so he does have skills, and I think he is only going to get better as the season progresses.”
Pompeo leads a tight pack of players for Southern Maine with a total of nine points on the season, which is just one point ahead of fellow freshman Garrett White, who has chipped in with eight points, including seven assists. Those two lead the freshmen group in the offensive category, but there is another group of freshmen that Beaney is also looking for some leadership and growth in, particularly in the second half — the goaltenders.
The Huskies have three freshmen netminders, and by far Josh Hillegas has seen the lion’s share of the workload, having played in 10 of the team’s 11 games this season. While his numbers are not yet awe-inspiring, they are substantially better than those of his fellow netminders, and that is an area that Beaney emphasizes a need for improvement in the second half.
“Josh has been battling all season,” noted Beaney. “He has been by far our most consistent goalie, but we need to get the other guys going too. Patrick [Farrington] and Michael [Gendreau] have seen some time, but have not got into that zone yet where there is consistency. We definitely need one or both to step up. That will push Josh a bit and give us a lot more flexibility in playing multiple goalies if we can get them playing at a high level.”
The Huskies have surrendered four or more goals in each of their six losses this season, and a total of 37 goals in those six losses. The final game of the first half saw the Huskies drop a 10-4 decision to Potsdam where the Bears scored on 10 of 37 shots and scored at least three goals on each of the three Southern Maine netminders, who all saw playing time.
“No doubt goaltending will be a key for us,” said Beaney. “It’s definitely the most visible area for improvement, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be doing more to help our goalies out, like killing penalties better.”
The Southern Maine penalty kill has surrendered nine goals in its six losses, as compared with just four against in their five wins. Granted two of those losses include Norwich and Bowdoin, but they only account for three of total power-play goals against. No doubt improved goaltending and penalty killing will have a positive impact on the Huskies performance.
The second half of the season opens for USM on Jan. 5 against MASCAC opponent Salem State. Five of the first seven games after the break are on the road, and include some interesting nonconference opponents like Colby and Bowdoin around the always-difficult trip to Skidmore and Castelton. So life on the road for this young team may go a long way in determining where Southern Maine finishes in the playoff picture, but don’t count out the historically strong Huskies and strong second half finishes.