ORONO, Maine — At Alfond Arena, the only sight that can top senior captain Michel Leveille slicing his way in and out of an opponent’s defense in order to deliver a picture perfect pass is that of the dynamic playmaker attempting to don some giant range snow pants.
In a fitting conclusion to the Frenchman and five other seniors’ careers at Alfond Arena, the Black Bear faithful watched Leveille cap off a 5-1 victory on Senior Night against Merrimack by sliding into the customary Maine fashion staple.
After watching the pair of leggings, usually worn by a loyal Maine fan in the student section, float to the ice from the balcony, the senior knew there was only one action left to take before he stepped off the home ice for potentially the last time ever.
“It wasn’t that hard actually putting them on,” said Leveille. “Josh [Soares] asked me if I wanted to wear them and I said ‘no problem.’ Someone was going to put them on no matter what.”
With Leveille slipping on the evening ware, and the fans providing one of their loudest ovations of the year, it was clear Maine right back where they wanted to be relaxed and in control of their own destiny.
“I thought it was a good team weekend,” said assistant captain Mike Lundin. “It’s a good feeling we’ve got some confidence back now. For us the playoffs kind of started this weekend because we are playing for home-ice.
Behind two assists from Leveille and an offensive performance that watched five different Black Bears find the scoreboard, No. 12 Maine was able to hold serve and sweep the season series against the Warriors. More importantly though, the win
allowed Maine to take sole-possession of fourth place in the Hockey East Standings and hold on to the fourth and final home ice slot in the conference.
“Everyone knew where we were in the standings and how important getting point this weekend was,” said senior Mike Hamilton. “We knew it was going to start from the first shift in the first game, so everyone was pretty focused. We had a great week
in practice and we just did what we needed to do. Coach gave us a good game plan and Merrimack came out hard and we nailed it.”
Anchored by four of six seniors and 10 others who registered points on Saturday, the Black Bears gave Merrimack plenty of headaches on the power play. For the second night in a row, the Black Bears, No. 1 ranked power play, abused the Warriors
penalty kill for two scores.
“We always feel pretty comfortable on our power play,” said Lundin. “We work on it a lot and the units know each other really well. Even with a fall here or there, overall we feel very confident on the power play.”
However, everything wasn’t completely rosy for the Black Bears. In fact, with just 43 seconds remaining in the second period it turned down right scary for Maine. For the second time in a month, Big Ben Bishop was forced to leave the ice after he appeared to pull his groin again. At first glance, Bishop appeared fine and just shook up. But minutes after going down in an awkward split, Bishop was removed from the game.
“I felt just a pop and we’re not quite sure what it is, I’m going to get an MRI tomorrow,” said Bishop. “It was a little bit lower [then the last time] but it’s the same area. It was the same feeling I felt the last time.”
The sight of Bishop in pain was extremely difficult for head coach Tim Whitehead to watch.
“That’s a real shame,” said Whitehead. “I think back to that situation at UNH and it doesn’t make me feel very good to be honest with you. It’s an unfortunate scenario that he’s re-injured it now. It’s not a good thing. He’s a tough kid though and he will bounce back as soon as he can. We don’t know how serious it is, but obviously he doesn’t come out of the game if it’s not serious.”
Fortunately enough for the Black Bears, the squad had two major factors going for them that at time not only did they have a 5-1 lead at the time, but they had underdog and sudden cult hero Dave Wilson in their corner.
“He did a great job again tonight coming in,” said Bishop. “He’s done a great job all year and he will continue to.”
Right from the start, Wilson was thrown into the fire having to make his first save on a breakaway by Matt Byrnes with 10 seconds remaining in the second period.
“I was actually going to come out and play the puck on the play,” said Wilson. “I was halfway out and I decided I would play it safe and back in. I knew he was going to go blocker, you could tell the way he was moving his head back and forth, so I just followed him back to the post and squeezed it through my legs.”
“We’ve been practicing that every practice,” said Wilson. “I live for that moment. I find it the most exciting one-on-one with me and the shooter.”
Once he made the initial first save, Wilson said he was locked in.
“Right after the breakaway I settled in,” said Wilson. “You know what coming in off the bench I’ve been ready all season especially the last half of the season. I’ve been prepared for every game.”
It didn’t hurt either that Wilson was bolstered by a healthy night production-wise from the Black Bears. After Pat Kimball managed to pilfer Bishop’s net halfway through the first on a goal that slipped beneath Bishops glove, Maine countered with tallies from Wes Clark and Simon Danis-Pepin at 12:12 and 17:07. Clark’s eighth goal of the year proved to be the turning point.
“Our line was moving the puck well and it was a great shot by [Vince] Laise off the pad and I just went to the net for a rebound,” said Clark. “I put it right under his pad short side.”
The Black Bears waited till the second to strike again and boy did they ever. Within the first four minutes, Maine received back-to-back beauties from Hamilton and fellow senior Brent Shepheard.
The breaking of the camel’s back proved to be Hamilton’s score.
“Keenan Hopson has great poise back there and I just called for it and he put right on my tape,” said Hamilton. “We are moving the puck pretty well and keeping it simple.”
Arriving at 3:05 and 3:47 of the second on the power play, the two goals from the seniors aided the Black Bears in their quest to topple the feisty Warriors.
“Again it was challenging game, I really don’t think the score reflected that,” said Whitehead. “At the same time, I thought the special teams were the difference again and that really put the game away. It was great to see two seniors get the goals.”
The last tally of the night came courtesy of another offensive chance generated by Leveille. On the ensuing play, Tyler slammed home the puck after a series of well-timed passes at 16:51. With a four goal advantage and Wilson, 12 saves, back on his game the Black Bears were able to send the seniors – Leveille, Shepheard, Hamilton, Lundin, Soares and Keith Johnson – off in style.
“They’ve been fantastic, they’ve been a great group and not just because they have 102 wins, a Hockey East title, two Frozen Fours in three years it’s just the type of people they are and become,” said Whitehead.
“They continue to improve in everyway in their lives. They are a very impressive group. I’m proud to say they’re all on pace to graduate and be great guys. The bonus is that they are great hockey players.”
Merrimack will now head to Providence, while Maine travels to Amherst for a mammoth series against the Minutemen.
“It’s kind of good every game is going to mean so much and be a battle, so its going to be some fun hockey,” said Hamilton about the series.
As of now, it is unclear as to who will play between the pipes for Maine.
“It’s going to be exactly the same situation as the last two weeks, but I’m living for the moment right now,” said Wilson. “I’m practicing every day like I will be playing on the weekend.”