Most people figured this would be a rebuilding year for Maine, but last place hardly seemed a part of the equation. In the preseason, Hockey East coaches picked the Black Bears to finish fifth. Yours truly also picked them for fifth; Jim Connelly pegged them for fourth.
All of those projections seemed reasonable despite the major attrition from last year’s squad. After all, since the turn of the century, Maine had finished lower than fifth place only twice (in 2007-08 and 2008-09).
Fast forward three months. It’ll now take a miracle to avoid adding this year’s edition to that unenviable list. One of Hockey East’s perennial powers sits in dead last with a 1-7-2 league record.
“Inside the program, this wasn’t unexpected,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead says. “We knew it was going to be a rebuilding year. Still, it’s difficult when expectations are high in spite of that.”
Fans have become frustrated. For every Al from Kandahar, who recently emailed his unflagging faith in his boys, there are any number of natives who’ve become restless.
To keep matters from snowballing, Whitehead has cautioned his team to ignore the standings.
“We’ve just continued to focus on improvement individually and as a team, not necessarily the results,” he says. “Obviously, we always want the results, but we’re trying to keep their sights on one day at a time.”
Sometimes that message gets through; other times, it’s a difficult sell. Such as this past weekend against Mercyhurst.
“We’re still struggling at home to get results,” Whitehead says. “We played well the other night, probably our best period of the year in the first period, but we got out of it 1-1 and players were a little uptight about not having a big lead after carrying the play.
“The freshmen are all new to it and they’re pretty resilient. The upperclassmen, though, have never been through a losing season here at Maine. They’re the ones that have had the most difficulty dealing with the start we’ve had.
“It can get frustrating, especially for those guys. The seniors, in particular, don’t want to be the class that has a losing season.
“We don’t want them to be, so we’re doing everything we can to help them and they’re doing everything they can do to help the team. The upperclassmen have done a fabulous job of sticking together through a very challenging first half of the season.”
The last few weeks have shown signs of a turnaround. Maine emerged from the break by winning the Florida College Hockey Classic, defeating Minnesota-Duluth, a middle-of-the-pack WCHA team, and Cornell, a club with a winning record. They followed that up with last weekend’s split with Mercyhurst.
After a 2-11-2 start, winning three of four feels like just what the doctor ordered.
“Some of their hard work is slowly paying off,” Whitehead says. “We have a lot of work to do, obviously, but at least we’re getting some results from our efforts.”
The hope, of course, is that as much as negative momentum had to be overcome in the first half, some much-needed positive momentum will grease the skids for a strong second half.
“No doubt, winning always does build confidence,” Whitehead says. “You hope it’s not false confidence. I certainly don’t think it will be with this team with all we’ve been through. Winning is the ultimate elixir for improving your confidence.
“We needed some wins and obviously we need to continue to win. But if we focus on the winning and the end result, then we’re going to be clutching those sticks even tighter. We’ve got to keep doing what we’ve been doing over the last two months where we’ve seen that improvement, just focusing on that daily process, that weekly process, of developing skill and improving our team execution both offensively and defensively.”
Maine has fared quite well in the defensive end for the most part. For the season, the Black Bears rank in the middle of the pack of Hockey East. Over the last eight games, they’ve allowed more than two goals only twice: four in a game against Cornell in which the Big Red scored three times early and then added an extra-attacker goal after Maine rallied for the eventual win; and three (plus two empty-netters) against Mercyhurst on Saturday.
Goaltender Martin Ouellette (2.15 goals against average, .902 save percentage) has seized top billing between the pipes, unseating incumbent Dan Sullivan, who played almost every game in October but none since Nov. 4. Freshman Matt Morris relieved Ouellette after the shaky start against Cornell and stole the game. He also took the loss on Saturday.
“We’re very excited about our goaltending, actually,” Whitehead says. “Danny got the bulk of the starts at the start of the season and then Martin was able to gradually earn more and more ice time through his starts. He strung together — with the exception of the Cornell game — eight or nine great games in a row. So he’s really emerged as our No. 1 goalie.
“But having said that, it was great for Matty [Morris] to recapture that Cornell game for us. He performed absolutely tremendous and made the all-tournament team and very deservedly so.
“I thought he played real well the other night against Mercyhurst. It was our last nonleague game and it was very important to get Matty another start. The loss was not his fault; he gave us every opportunity in that game to do well.
“Martin is our No. 1 right now, but Matt and Danny are both ready to go in if needed by the team. Our goaltending situation is the best it’s been in a long time.”
The offensive end, however, will either make or break this team over the second half. In the first half, it broke the Black Bears. Heading into the holiday break, they were averaging an almost microscopic 1.33 goals a game, worst in the nation, and were next to last on the power play (7 percent).
It was perhaps fitting that they would end the first half by playing a tremendous game at Boston University only to lose 1-0.
What in the name of Paul Kariya was going on?
“It takes time to develop scoring,” Whitehead says. “Matt Mangene didn’t become Matt Mangene overnight.”
Mangene totaled four goals in his first two seasons at Orono before exploding for 16 last year to go along with 18 assists.
“He really didn’t start scoring till the second half of his junior year, so it takes time,” Whitehead adds. “But he did, it was him, it was real.
“Everyone develops at different rates. Some of our guys are emerging pretty quickly offensively, but usually it takes time. We’re putting that time in and they are developing.”
Since the break, the limited evidence backs that claim. Granted, the winning margin over Duluth was 1-0 and Maine scored no more than twice against Mercyhurst both nights last weekend. But the 6-4 win over Cornell could be telling. Arguably, this team earlier in the season could not have overcome a 3-0 deficit, especially against a pretty strong defensive team.
“We know we’re not going to score six goals a game,” Whitehead says. “We’re playing in an extremely tough conference. But we’re generating some real good chances, we are scoring more and our power play has improved.”
The Maine power play terrorized all of college hockey the last three years but hit the skids this season. At one point, it was 5-for-76 on the year. In the last three games, however, it has gone 4-for-12, including two against Cornell.
“We know what a good power play looks like and we don’t have it right now,” Whitehead says. “But we have an improving one, we’ll say that. We’re not kidding ourselves that just because we’ve had a few wins all of a sudden we’re going to start putting up four-, five-, six-goal games on a regular basis. It’s going to take time and we understand that.”
Putting all the pieces together provides some reason for optimism in the second half.
“We are playing very well defensively on a consistent basis,” Whitehead says. “Our penalty kill has improved dramatically, our penalty minutes have been cut dramatically with a couple of exceptions.
“It’s been dramatic improvements in those areas; it’s been baby steps with the power play and offense. We kind of knew that would be the case.
“So we’re going to continue to take steps offensively and keep focusing on being as consistent as we can defensively.”
River Hawks rolling
Hopes were high among Massachusetts-Lowell fans during the preseason and for good reason. Most of last season’s team was returning and the River Hawks were picked to finish second in the coaches’ poll. (Jim and I agreed.)
Over the first dozen games, however, they posted a 4-7-1 record. Not the stuff of second-place teams.
Much of that could be traced to the schedule. Half of Lowell’s games were against top-10 teams (three vs. No. 4 UNH, two vs. No. 3 BC and another against No. 9 Denver).
Since then, however, the River Hawks have reeled off five straight wins, vaulting them to the 20th spot in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll and a surprising 14th in the PairWise Rankings. (Yes, the PairWise is quite meaningless at this early stage, but it’s surprising nonetheless. It’s also worth noting that even after five games against “easier” opponents, Lowell’s strength of schedule still ranks ninth nationally.)
“I think we’ve been experiencing progressive success,” Lowell coach Norm Bazin says. “That comes from your goaltending being solid, it certainly comes from your defensemen making contributions and it comes from your forwards paying the price. So those three things combined have all helped us become a little more consistent with our habits.”
Bazin has been going with freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck with increasing regularity during the winning streak and the rookie has delivered, posting shutouts against Northeastern and Harvard while allowing only a single goal against Princeton and Clarkson. Even factoring in the five goals Denver scored on him in early October, Hellebuyck’s numbers are impressive (1.55 goals against average, .943 save percentage).
Doug Carr, last year’s second-team all-Hockey East netminder, hasn’t matched his breakout performance from last year (2.61 GAA vs. 2.13; .905 save percentage vs. .928) but remains in the picture.
Not surprisingly, Bazin is noncommittal regarding how that will shake out over the second half.
“We’re very fortunate,” he says. “We feel that we’ve got two goaltenders that can go on any given night and that’s a good combination. We hope that can continue.”
During the five-game streak, Lowell has won the tight, low-scoring games (2-0, 3-2, 2-1) and blown out a couple opponents (5-0 and 6-2).
When asked about the firepower his team displayed in the blowouts, Bazin downplayed the results.
“I’m not sure that we’ve got more than anyone else,” he says. “It’s just a matter of things falling your way on some days.”
He’s happy, though, with winning the tight ones.
“You need to be able to win close games because in the end they’re all close,” he says. “I guess we’ve been able to have our success a number of different ways.”
The offensive changes Bazin put into place in mid-November, emphasizing quality of shots over quantity, have produced wins in all but the three games against UNH.
“We haven’t been getting as many shots, but I think that our number of Grade A opportunities is up,” he says. “I think we’ve been possibly more selective, but we’re getting to the right areas to get a quality chance.”
Bouncing back from the disappointing start is a testament to the team’s leadership even though only two seniors regularly dress.
“We feel we’ve got a good leadership core,” Bazin says. “We’ve got several juniors that add to our leadership core and a few sophomores. We’re relying on that group heavily. Just because they’re not seniors, we don’t view them as non-leaders.
“We’ve just got a certain standard of play that we have to follow through with on game night in order to have success. I think we’re realizing what it takes to maintain that standard.
“It’s certainly not easy and with the great competition within our league, it’s an extra challenge. We’ll look forward to see if we can continue that trend here in Hockey East.”
Indeed, the only disappointing aspect to the five-game streak is that only one win came over a league opponent. Despite the move into the national rankings, the River Hawks are 3-6-1 within Hockey East. That’s good only for eighth place but with stronger play, games in hand and five of the six contests against the BC-UNH juggernaut out of the way, Lowell seems poised for a similar shot up the league standings.
“We’re very aware of the situation,” Bazin says. “We realize that we’ve got to certainly gain some ground in Hockey East.
“It’s such a tough conference that it’s a real battle every night to gain any points. It will be our next challenge here to concentrate on getting points on any night that we play against some very tough Hockey East opponents.”
Looking at the BC-UNH weekend
A few weeks ago, this weekend’s Boston College-New Hampshire home-and-home series would have been between the No. 1 and 2 teams in the country. A couple potholes coming out of the break have rendered it No. 3 vs. 4. Only the slightest of blooms off that rose.
Chances are, this matchup will result in a split. The two teams are too closely matched for a sweep.
Many might argue that if any team will prevail, it’ll be the third-ranked Eagles. They do, after all, have three national championships in the last five years. They win big games. They’ve also gotten Johnny Gaudreau back from his triumphant performance in the World Junior Championship.
I’ll argue, however, that UNH is the better team right now. Both teams are offensive powerhouses, among the best in the country, but while the Wildcats have been playing championship-level defense, BC has not. UNH averages a league-best 1.94 goals against per game; BC averages 2.65.
Am I betting against the Eagles cleaning up their defensive play before April? Not at all.
But right now, I think UNH is the favorite.