ORONO, Me. — On a night when both the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country fell in upsets, the last thing Maine expected or wanted was to be generating headlines after a contest with last placed Merrimack.
They knew they weren’t the main attraction.
Instead, the Black Bears just wanted to adhere to their own problems made evident last weekend after getting swept by Boston College. With no attention of slighting Merrimack, a team who has struggled to create their own offense this year but received plenty of praise from Maine, the Black Bears were quite content on grabbing their two points and keeping pace in the race for the final home berth in Hockey.
Friday, the No. 12 Black Bears did just that with an encouraging 3-0 victory over Merrimack. The win helped the Black Bears avoid any dreaded upset talk and managed to move them into fourth place in the Hockey East standings.
“We just wanted to get back on track, we had a tough weekend down at BC,” said junior defenseman Bret Tyler. “We wanted to come out and play hard especially for our seniors being that is their last weekend at home.”
“We are fighting for home-ice and we knew this was a huge weekend.”
Along with Tyler’s goal and an assist performance, the Black Bears road the coat tails of netminder Ben Bishop’s third collegiate shutout and captain Michel Leveille’s 50th career tally.
Despite what some will perceive as a fairly straight forward win, Whitehead was pleased with Maine’s focused effort. Having struggled to but together consistent outcomes, the Black Bears are now hoping to return to their national contender status no matter who’s taking the ice with them.
“At this point of the year, ever point is hard fought,” said Whitehead. “The bottom line is we knew we would be in for a hard fight tonight and our guys were prepared for it. We did dig in and we knew it wasn’t going to come easy.”
“They played us real tough tonight,” said Tyler. “They are probably one of the hardest working teams in the league. You can’t take anything away from them.” In the end, the Warriors were vanquished courtesy of the best power play in the nation, which contributed to two of the team’s three scores.
“It wasn’t just the power play, we didn’t allow anything on the penalty kill either,” said Leveille. “Special teams at this point of the year are critical and you have to score on the power play and stop them on the kill and that’s what we did.”
The difference-maker came early on in the match when Bret Tyler saw his wrist shot trickle through the left elbow of goalie Jim Healey. The goal found the back of the net at 5:19.
“In college hockey, the power play and penalty kill are huge we knew Merrimack was a great defensive team, so when you get a power play early you have to capitalize on it,” said Tyler.
“The key was being able to capitalize and at least get one,” said Whitehead. “In these types of games when you’re playing a good defensive team and a strong goalie, if you don’t get one early it can almost feel like ‘are we ever going to score.’ But at least we got that one early. So even though we had a lot of shots and had one goal at least we had the goal. With that we knew he wasn’t invincible.”
The score for the feisty defenseman was his 22nd point of the year and was typical of Maine’s relentless power play.
“We moved the puck around real well and got it down deep,” said Tyler. “Hammy [Mike Hamilton] and Keith Johnson did a great job in the front of the net screening and I saw an open lane I just tried to get it through. Luckily it found its way through, so will take it.”
Maine continued to punish the Warriors for the rest of period, hitting them up for a commanding 18 to 5 advantage in the shot total. The plethora of shots was all in the game plan for the Black Bears.
“We wanted to come out strong in the first period but also right from the first shift,” said Leveille. “That’s what we did. We wanted to get the momentum and for them to get the message that it wasn’t going to be an easy game.”
The Black Bears, however, had to wait for more then 30 minutes before they registered their next dash on the scoreboard. With Healy in fine form, Maine failed to gain any traction in the decision.
“I’m a little bit disappointed in the way we came out in the second,” said Leveille. “We came out flat and they kind of gained the momentum back a little I think they hit a post in the second. At this point of the year we have to be consistent from shift to shift and period to period. That’s something we need to work on.”
Yet, the team finally received any answer at 17:17 when Leveille atop the near face-off circle rocketed home a one-timer high off a Tyler pass from the point.
“Coach told me to go out to the top of the umbrella and we were kind just moving it around a little bit,” said Tyler. “You don’t want anyone else on the team with the puck on their stick with the game on line then Leveille. He made no mistakes putting it up top.”
The tally was Michel’s 50th in Maine Blue; a milestone and one he had no idea about.
“I did not know that,” said Leveille. “I think Josh [Soares] mentioned it to me but I didn’t know it before. But I don’t care about that. As long we bring back the National Championship it doesn’t matter what I do personally.”
With Leveille and Tyler caressing the mesh, the only thing left for the Black Bears to get was a solid effort from Bishop.
After the opening two periods, it was apparent that he was going to deliver his end of the bargain.
“I was just trying to stay big and control I wasn’t trying to do too much,” said Bishop. “I think I was trying to do a little too much the past few games playing the puck and getting a little wild out there. I was just trying to stay calm and collective tonight.”
Whitehead believed that it wasn’t an undemanding game for the big man.
“It was a very deceptively tough game for him because he went through stretches of time without a lot of quality chances then all of a sudden he got a few,” said Whitehead.
“When he got those chances he was very composed. Sometimes in those
situations a goalie can get fidgety because he isn’t facing a lot of shots. But I thought he handled it perfectly. He stayed big through screen shots and on some pucks he may have not even seen he was able to stop them because he didn’t crouch down
At the conclusion of the game, Healy headed to the locker room with 31 saves.
“I talked to him after the game and told him to ‘keep it up’ because he is a great goaltender who just gets a ton of shots,” said Leveille.
The two teams return to the ice Saturday at 7 p.m for their finale and UMaine’s senior night.