No more moral victories for Maine after potential turning point

Two weekends ago, the Maine Black Bears walked into Merrimack a confident team. They were returning two key players — Jeff Dimmen and Will O’Neill — from injury and were ready to tackle the league schedule down the stretch.

That Black Bears team left Lawler Arena dejected and shaking its collective heads after losing, 7-1, to the Warriors. What should’ve been a day for Maine to jump start its second half turned not into just a loss, but a disaster.

Brian Flynn (Maine - 10) - The University of Maine Black Bears defeated the visiting University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux 7-3 on Friday, October 22, 2010, at Alfond Arena in Orono, Maine. (Melissa Wade)
Maine hopes that Brian Flynn's overtime goal against Providence will be a turning point (photo: Melissa Wade).

“I think guys thought it was going to come easy,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “Those little things are really big things. The effort, the focus and the intensity they need to play in these situations in league games, we didn’t have those that night.”

Thus, last weekend, when the team returned to Orono for two games, facing an upstart Providence club and white-hot Boston College, redemption was one of the first things on the minds of the Black Bears players.

Redemption seemed to be in Maine’s grasp on Friday. A 3-1 lead through two periods for a team that is solid when carrying a lead to the third quickly disappeared as the Friars scored twice to force overtime.

Whitehead knew that a goal against in overtime could be a backbreaker — not just for that game, but for the season.

“Sometimes you can do everything right and still not win. You get moral victories there,” said Whitehead. “But I don’t think a moral victory would’ve been enough. We’d have lost some confidence.”

Instead, Brian Flynn, the team’s leading goal scorer, scored what Whitehead deemed as a perfect goal.

“We won the draw, got it deep and kept grinding away there,” said Whitehead. “Finally, one of the shots, the rebound presented itself and Brian Flynn collected it on his skate and lifted it up.”

The overtime goal and victory gave the Black Bears back a good amount of confidence. That translated to a dominating 4-1 victory over then-No. 3 Boston College. Suddenly, what could’ve been a path of disaster for the Black Bears is beginning to look like one of hope.

Should the Black Bears continue that success down the stretch, it will be easy to look back at Flynn’s OT winner on Friday as a major turning point in the season.

“Any time you have success in key moments of games, it builds confidence,” said Whitehead. “As long as it doesn’t build overconfidence, you’re in a good situation. This team won’t get overconfident because we’ve been through so much this year. The last loss we had [to Merrimack] really crystallized that. We’re running out of time here and we need to start winning some games and leave it all out on the ice.”

If there is any hurdle that Whitehead’s Maine team still has to cross, it may be goaltending. The inexperienced staff has looked brilliant at times this year and also struggled. Last Sunday, Whitehead decided to shake things up and give the start to Shawn Sirman, who had played just twice since the opening month of the season, despite a decent 2-0-2 record.

Whitehead had believed in his two freshmen goalies — Dan Sullivan, who made 12 starts, and Martin Ouelette, who started six games. But in an attempt to shake things up, Whitehead gave the start to Sirman, noting his confidence in his sophomore netminder, even if he might have been alone in that confidence.

“Myself and Shawn Sirman were the only people who thought he might win on Sunday,” laughed Whitehead. “It’s been a real interesting ride with the goalies, but we kind of expected that. We expected the goaltending to be what it is, which is young and inexperienced.

“We’ve tried not to use that as a crutch and give each of them the opportunity to succeed. They’ve had some gems. But protecting those goaltenders is a major focus.”

So now the question becomes just which goaltender will be Maine’s starter down the stretch. That’s not a decision Whitehead is even close to ready to make.

“In our situation, [choosing the starter] is difficult,” said Whitehead. “We’re not in the situation to [have a No. 1]. There hasn’t been enough consistency. It’s absolutely wide open.

“The good news is we’re excited about all three. We’re way ahead of where we were with our team last year.”

Lowell’s MacDonald: ‘Worrying solely about UMass-Lowell’

Very similar to Maine, Massachusetts-Lowell entered last weekend in need of victories. Facing their rival and sister school, Massachusetts, the River Hawks were desperate. Lowell hadn’t won a game since Nov. 5, a 3-1 win over Vermont, and in the meantime had assembled an 11-game losing streak.

Unfortunately, things continued to get ugly against the Minutemen as Lowell lost in the closing seconds of Friday’s opener (a game for which the team resorted to a marketing gimmick of “firing its mascot,” citing the only way for Rowdy the River Hawk to get its job back would be to sell 2,000 tickets — something that was supposedly accomplished) and then got manhandled in Saturday’s rematch, extending the losing streak to 13.

Things won’t get too much easier for Lowell this weekend as it’ll be prey for a streaking Merrimack team and Boston College, which will be hungry after Sunday’s loss to Maine.

But according to coach Blaise MacDonald, neither the Warriors nor the Eagles are his or his team’s focus at this point. Instead, the only concern about UMass-Lowell is, well, UMass-Lowell.

“Quite frankly, our focus is solely on UMass-Lowell,” said MacDonald. “We clearly know how good Merrimack and BC are, particularly at home. We can’t necessarily control how they play. We can impact our outlook.”

It’s been a challenge, according to MacDonald, to keep the team’s morale up. His coaching staff has tried to remain positive and keep things as light as possible around the team.

“[Times like these] are when you have to do your best coaching,” said MacDonald. “You don’t always see results in wins and losses but your emotional component is very important.

“We’ve tried to keep things fresh. Have new drills and new challenges for our team. Celebrate small victories and always maintain that level of faith, which is believing without seeing it is right around the corner.”

MacDonald compared his season to pumping water from a well. The water might be 200 feet below the ground but you keep working hard to pump the water, hoping something will eventually surface.

“All of a sudden the water starts flowing out,” said MacDonald. “If you stop pumping you’re going back 200 feet down to the bottom.”

And if that mentality doesn’t work?

“You take the team to go meet Mickey Ward and watch the movie, ‘The Fighter.'”

Quote of the week

Quote of the week, maybe of the season, comes from Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy, talking about his team’s victory on Tuesday night over Boston University.

“If we had beat BU four years ago, holy smokes, they’d have had a parade on campus. [Tuesday night] was like any other win. I don’t know if they’re enjoying it enough. You have to relish the victories, too.”