It’s been quite a while since Maine last won a Hockey East regular season title — 1994-95 to be exact — but the Black Bears have done some serious knocking on the championship door nonetheless. In two of the last three years, they’ve advance to the title game only to fall agonizingly short.
The reason why they’ve been so effective in recent postseasons is the reason why they’ll once again be serious threats in the Hockey East tournament and NCAAs.
As in Killer Team Defense.
No team in the country allowed fewer goals per game than Maine last year and it’ll be a surprise if the team doesn’t again rank among the best in keeping zeroes on the other half of the scoreboard.
The biggest reason why is number 33 between the pipes. Jimmy Howard obliterated the Hockey East and NCAA record book last year, posting a 1.19 goals against average and a .956 save percentage. He allowed two goals or less in 20 of his 22 starts and one or less in 15. With the exception of a fluky game against Harvard in the NCAAs, he closed out the season allowing five goals total in his last eight games.
Other than that, of course, he’s a sieve.
Until the stretch run through the playoffs, Howard shared the goaltending responsibilities with Frank Doyle, who graduated. Replacing Doyle will be incoming freshman Matt Lundin, although Lundin won’t be seeing as much action as Doyle did. The days of the primarily even rotation until the playoffs are over.
“It’ll be a great challenge for Jimmy,” coach Tim Whitehead says. “Jimmy is a great competitor and knowing that we have him back is a thrill for us. We’re very proud of what he’s accomplished at Maine. We feel that we have the right guy.
“But having said that, we found out over the last two years how important it is to have two goalies who can run with it. It’s really saved us the last two years in many key situations, most recently in the NCAAs with Harvard and last January Frank Doyle basically guaranteed us an Eastern regional, which was big. His impact was much bigger than people outside the program would realize.
“It’ll be more of a traditional number-one, number-two type of look and that’s great. It’ll be a great challenge for Matty Lundin, the freshman coming in, coming out of a Minnesota high school as a true freshman. It’ll be a bigger jump for him than it was for Jimmy initially, who came out of the US program which had played some college teams.
“We’d like to get Matt in there as much as we can. I think it’s very important to get him in there, but how much remains to be seen.”
The defense lost its leader and primary physical presence, All-American Prestin Ryan, but returns six who saw action in at least 27 games last year. Three freshmen supplement that group.
“We’re really pleased with where our defensive corps is,” Whitehead says. “When we look at how it was two or three years ago, we didn’t have the depth that we do at that position now. I think we’re very strong in that position now.
“We may not have two or three elite guys like we would want, but we love each of our guys. We think we’ve got some real good competitors there. So we’re very balanced. Obviously, we hope that one or two of those guys does emerge as an elite defenseman like a Francis Nault did or Peter Metcalf or Prestin Ryan. I’m confident that one or two of them will.”
The offensive picture is a bit more murky. Last year’s team went through stretches where scoring was easy — it finished at a not-too-shabby 3.21 goals per game, third in Hockey East — but also struggled at times. Subtracted from the mix are some significant contributors, including Colin Shields and Todd Jackson, the top two goalscorers. Playmaker deluxe Michel Léveillé leads the returning forwards.
“I think we’ll be very similar to last year offensively and that we’ll score by committee more than with a couple of elite guys,” Whitehead says. “I was really proud of Todd Jackson in that he became a goal scorer with 21 goals. He certainly had never produced that many goals in a season before so hopefully we’ll have someone emerge much like he did and much like a Dustin Penner did down the stretch.
“Colin Shields was a very consistent scorer for us for three years. Do we have another Colin Shields? I don’t know. I would anticipate we’d be very similar.
“We’re going to have to be a very strong defensive team and we’re going to have to score by committee. Hopefully we’ll see a few players emerge and give us that scorer that you need in the key moment of the game.”
Put it all together and, at least on paper, Maine joins BC as head and shoulders above the rest of the Hockey East competition.
“I don’t see it that way, but I appreciate [people] saying that,” Whitehead says. “It certainly doesn’t feel that way. Obviously, we have a lot of respect for Boston College as an opponent so they’re certainly going to be very tough competitors once again.
“The reality of this league is that every year one or two of those teams are displaced from the top and we hope it’s not us, of course. There will be some surprises just as there always is.”