ORONO, Maine — Throughout of all last season, Maine continually and thoroughly made a name for itself on special teams. Anchored by Hobey Baker finalist Greg Moore, the squad constantly ranked amongst the best in the country on the penalty kill and power play. En route to their third Frozen Four appearance in five years, the Black Bears made it clear that they were not to be taken lightly when their was an odd-man advantage on ice.
Entering the 2006-2007 season, however, questions lingered about Maine and their special team units. Could they duplicate the same effort?
So far, the early answer is a loud and commanding yes.
Friday the seventh-ranked Black Bears (2-0-0) kicked off the home portion of their schedule with a 7-1 pasting of Bemidji State (0-1-0). With all the goals coming courtesy of the special teams, it was clear that Maine is ready to pick up right where they left off last year.
“The power play and the penalty kill were a big plus for us,” said Maine head coach Tim Whitehead after the decision. “I thought we got a little fortunate on a couple of them, but at the same time we will take it.”
Delighting Maine captain Michel Leveille and the crowd of 5,450 at Alfond Arena was the fact that all seven goals came from seven different faces.
“Seven different guys scored tonight, anytime that happens it’s a good night,” said Leveille. “When everyone is getting their first goals of the year it definitely loosens the pressure.”
Maine received the collection of goals from a wide assortment of new and old faces that included Leveille, Keith Johnson, Wes Clark, Brent Shepheard, Matt Duffy, Billy Ryan and Keenan Hopson. Each goal was the first of the season for every player.
For the Beavers, who were playing in their first of match of the year, the offensive explosion by the Black Bears came at exactly the wrong time. With four officials on the ice as part of a new officiating directive, Bemidji State opened the game with several typical beginning of the year penalties. The calls proved to be disastrous right from the start for Tom Serratore’s crew.
Just 3:27 into the first period Maine found the scoreboard after Hopson managed to flick a close-range shot over the blocker of netminder Layne Sedevie. The puck bounced free on the power play after Bret Tyler rifled a low-lying slap shot from the point. Tyler and Shepheard snagged assists on the play.
“I just had to turn around and grab it,” said Hopson discussing the rebound. “We seemed to build off that goal, so that was good.”
As the Beavers continued to stack up penalties, seven total in the first period, Maine applied sustained pressure on Sedevie. Pressing the North Dakota native from every angle, Maine successful registered their second goal when Ryan tipped another Tyler point shot on the power play at 14:40.
However, the fatal blow for the Beavers did not prove be a power play goal but rather a shorthanded netter from Johnson that came on a breakaway. After a mishandled pass to the point by Shane Holman, Johnson raced in alone on Sedevie at 19:13 of the first period.
“Me and Wes Clark we’re on the penalty kill and it was a defensive zone face-off,” said Johnson. “They won the draw but their defenseman kind of coughed it up and I was going out there to pressure him. I just picked up the puck and I knew I had my speed going so I just tried to drive the net. Luckily, I just tucked it between his pads.”
Whitehead did not hesitate in calling the goal the most pivotal of the blowout.
“That was a big a goal,” said Whitehead. “Right at the end of the first period that was a huge goal, probably the biggest goal of the game.”
Johnson’s breakaway goal was an encouraging sign for both the player and the team. Last season, the gritty Johnson seemed snake-bitten when it came to breakaways and at times offensive production.
“I want to get off to a good start point-wise,” said Johnson, one goal and an assist. “It’s my senior year and I definitely want to contribute offensively more than I did last year. It was definitely a big confidence boaster.”
“Keith played an unbelievable game tonight,” said Leveille. “He was everywhere out there.”
Maine increased their advantage almost halfway through the second period when defenseman Duffy rocketed a one-timer top shelf on Sedevie. Thanks to a generous rebound off a Tyler slap shot, Duffy tallied the power play goal at 12:27. The assist was Tyler’s third of the game.
“We worked on it a lot this week in practice,” said Johnson. “We didn’t get any out in Minnesota, so we put a big emphasis on it this week. Coach Whitehead just put the emphasis on getting pucks through to the net. Bret Tyler did that twice and we ended up with two goals right there. If we keep it simple, we will be successful.”
Bemidji State responded with their lone goal 12 seconds later when Luke Erickson sent a laser over the blocker arm of Maine netminder Ben Bishop. Coming straight off the face-off, Erickson successfully caught Maine’s penalty kill and Bishop off guard.
For the rest of the out-of-conference meeting, both teams failed to achieve a constant rhythm and it shown.
“It was hard to establish rhythm, there were a lot of power plays and penalty kills,” said Whitehead. “It was tough to get into a flow for either team.”
Leveille felt the slow pace should’ve been expected considering the point in the season.
“It got really tough out there,” said Leveille. “At the beginning of the year, there are always a lot of penalties because players aren’t ready yet. It’s definitely hard to get a flow when there is a whistle every minute. It’s always good to have a quick paced game and see five minutes go without a whistle. We like that type of game. It’s more intense.”
In the final five minutes of the third period, Leveille, Clark and Shepheard each registered power play goals. Leveille and Shepheard, which came at 16:44 and 18:38 respectively, both, came from the high slot or just off it, while Clark tapped in a beautiful pass from Johnson.
“We got a little careless with it when we got a little bit of lead and then we tried forcing some passes, all and all though, the passing was pretty good,” said Whitehead.
In the end Maine finished 6-for-13 on the power play and the Beavers 1-for-8. Shepheard though believes the trouncing is not indicative of the quality of Bemidji State but rather the timing of the game.
“That was Bemidji’s first game so they are going to come out a lot better tomorrow,” said Shepheard.
“Last week, when we played our first game we struggled a bit with our special teams. The power play didn’t look good in particular, so we worked on that all week and we tweaked some things. It was nice to see it all connect tonight because special teams are huge. When you get the opportunities, especially on 5-on-3′s, you have to make them the difference in a game.”
Sedevie concluded his first trip to Orono with 36 saves. On the other side Ben Bishop snatched 21 saves before surrendering the spot to Dave Wilson with nine minutes to go in the first.
The foes finish up their CHA-Hockey East entanglement tonight at 8 p.m.