Attention Maine fans: You may remove the paper bags from your heads. The team that you’re used to seeing has returned.
Sure, maybe that’s a bold statement, but for a school that expects its team to compete for a national championship year in and year out, the well-document struggles of Maine hockey in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons had many fans in hiding.
After nine straight trips to the NCAA tournament beginning in 1999 — with a national title and five Frozen Four appearances included in there — Maine hit the skids for two seasons, amassing just 26 wins total.
Though it still finished short of an NCAA bid last season, Maine seemingly righted the ship. A 19-17-3 record included a run to the Hockey East title game before suffering an overtime loss to eventual national champion Boston College in the final.
And while that might have been a reason for optimism for the Black Bears, the true silver lining came on Friday evening, April 9. Moments after junior phenom Gustav Nyquist found out he had fallen short in his bid for the Hobey Baker Award, given to college hockey’s top player, he delivered news that was music to Maine’s ears.
Nyquist sat at the podium in his post-Hobey interviews and said definitively that he was returning to Maine. The NHL would wait. His team and his education came first.
“Gustav is a man of his word,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said, referring to Nyquist’s promise in April to return. “His family really puts a priority on education. He loves it in Maine. We’re certainly thrilled to have him back, and it’s a great statement for him and his family on just how important education is.”
Nyquist, though, will not carry the Maine load himself, and that’s something about which Whitehead is adamant. He is confident that his team’s upperclassmen will produce offensively and make this a team that expects to win each night.
“[Nyquist] doesn’t have to put all the weight on his shoulders. He’s got a good supporting cast,” Whitehead said. “I think we have a well-balanced group now offensively and defensively.”
If there is an Achilles’ heel to this team, it’s probably goaltending. Maine graduated Dave Wilson, who carried the club through last year’s postseason. Prior to the playoffs, one may remember, the Black Bears released standout Scott Darling for disciplinary reasons. That leaves the Black Bears with Shawn Sirman, who last year appeared in just eight games, posting a 1-6-0 record with an inflated 5.18 goals-against average.
“Our goaltenders are the least experienced,” Whitehead said. “We understand that, but we plan to protect them to give them an opportunity to succeed.”
Goal may be the only area, though, where Maine has to rely on youth. The team returns its top seven scorers, all of whom had at least 25 points last year. The only blueliner who graduated was Brett Carriere, who played in just 18 games a year ago.
“We don’t need our freshman to have the impact they’ve had in the past year,” Whitehead said. “That’s going to help their transition. If there’s injuries, though, I think they’ll step up there.”