ORONO, Maine — They like you, Dave Wilson. They really, really like you.
If the Maine freshman netminder needed any more proof Saturday night beyond the customary chants of appreciation, it was delivered in the form of a volleyball — a volleyball even Tom Hanks would be jealous of.
Moments after registering his first collegiate shutout in No. 7 Maine’s 1-0 victory over No. 14 Vermont, Wilson was greeted with a new gift: a replica of Hank’s friend Wilson in the film Cast Away.
The gift, a surprising and clever honor, couldn’t have been more well-deserved. After all, only two weeks ago Wilson was simply the guy who opened the door for Ben Bishop when he rushed to the bench on a late penalty call. Now, however, he is the man.
“From start to finish this weekend, he was outstanding,” said Maine head coach Tim Whitehead. “This was another good experience for him and he proved he was up to the task. That wasn’t an imposter. That was David. I’m just very pleased with how he’s practiced and how he’s played this second half of the season. He is what it is all about — improvement in all areas of life.”
Behind Wilson, who has now saved 81 of 84 saves in Bishop’s absence, the Black Bears were able to complete a much-needed sweep of the feisty Catamounts this weekend. On Saturday in his second career start for Maine, Wilson remained spot on with his angles and shutdown the Catamounts for 31 saves.
“As soon as I got out there I just felt absolutely incredible,” said Wilson. “The fans were behind us and about half way through the second period I really settled in. I just felt pretty much unbeatable tonight and the defense proved that.”
Unbeatable he was, with the Black Bears defense locking down on Vermont’s vaunted first line of Peter Lenes, Dean Strong and Torrey Mitchell. Sparked by the tremendous defensive play of Mike Lundin and Travis Ramsey, the Black Bears successfully boxed out the Catamounts and moved into a tie for third-place in Hockey East with Boston College.
“Travis and Mike Lundin both cleared a bunch of opportunities on rebounds and that was the game changing right there,” said Wilson. “If they tapped those rebounds in they would’ve won.”
The biggest of those chances for the Catamounts arrived late in the third period with 2:04 left in the contest. On the play a perfectly positioned Ramsey slapped away a loose rebound right at the top of the crease. If not for Ramsey, Vermont’s Corey Carlson had a clear shot at open left side of the net.
“[Assistant coach] Grant [Standbrook] always says get the heels to the net, so there were two guys bearing down and I got my heels down,” said Ramsey. “Wilson made a great first save and it just came right to my stick and I shoved it to the corner.”
The Catamounts continued to press for the reminder of the match, pulling freshman Mike Spillane at 1:36 only after Wilson made a breathtaking glove save on Evan Stoflet from the top of the point.
“I had to prove to myself that in tight games I could play well,” said Wilson.
With Spillane out, the Catamounts got two more quality chances at the 30-second mark. Wilson, however, once again proved up to the task. After senior Josh Soares managed to break the puck out and into the Vermont zone a huge scuffle unfolded after a late hit on Soares. It was clear emotions were high — both teams needed this one.
“Things build up — any time you play teams back-to-back in tight games like that, emotions run high,” said Soares. “They are down one-nothing and they want to win; they are going to let their emotions out and we’re not going to back down. It’s part of the game.”
In the end the difference proved to be not only Wilson and the defense’s play, but a garbage goal barely halfway through the first period at 12:12 by Wes Clark.
The eventual game-winner saw a perfect pass from Lundin at the point one-timed by Ramsey. With Clark waiting patiently in front, Ramsey’s shot clanked off Spillane’s left leg pad and right onto the stick of Clark.
“I just went to the net and found the rebound,” said Clark. “It was a tight defensive game and we knew that coming in. We knew it wasn’t going to be like last night. There wasn’t a lot of power plays tonight so we gutted it out. We needed this.”
Still, the story at the end of the night was Maine’s heady play on defense, which had deserted it only three weeks ago.
“The defense wanted to step up and let [Wilson] gain his confidence like a pitcher,” said Ramsey. “In the end he was playing so well, that he was giving us confidence. We’ve always had the offense this year that’s less typical of a Maine team and now down the stretch the defense is really coming around. It’s nice winning games with just one goal.”
One particular effort stood out for Whitehead: that of Mike Lundin, who was out of practice all week because of a virus and high fever.
“Honestly that was one of the best performances I’ve seen from a defenseman in a long, long time,” said Whitehead. “I’m very proud of Michael, he’s as good as they get. I’m very impressed.”
Saturday’s duel between the new rivals proved much different then Friday when the Black Bears ran away with the outcome due to the power play. Saturday, the Catamounts shown and nearly stole one at Alfond.
“We had they chances, they had chances, both goaltenders played great,” said Sneddon. “I think both coaches are feeling pretty good — one is feeling a little better because he got a win, but in terms of the process, I’m very pleased with what I saw.
“Unfortunately a small rebound and somewhat of a bounce went against us and we couldn’t get that going for us.”
In net for Vermont, Spillane, starting over regular Joe Fallon, performed valiantly, garnering 30 saves.
“I’m so proud of our guys — there’s not much I can say going into that locker room,” said Sneddon. “They left it all out there.”
Vermont will now look to recover from the huge sweep against Massachusetts next weekend.
“We have to build and take the confidence we saw tonight,” said Sneddon. “We played a great hockey team and we played fantastic. We just have to stick together and believe those bounces will start going our way. We’re not that far from being an excellent hockey team.”
Maine, on the other hand, heads to Chestnut Hill with a new-found mojo, having won its fourth game in five attempts. The team also saw its seniors earn their 100th win.
“This is a great feeling; we’ve had some real up and downs this year,” said Soares. “To play a team like Vermont, up there in the standings, up there nationally, they have great team defense and for us to come out the way we did this weekend with the sweep was just a great confidence booster for us at home.”