Maine makes some noise, now looks to build on it with balance

Sometimes the word “upset” is thrown around college athletics far too loosely. If you look at college basketball this season, the top 10 teams have been a revolving door.

But last weekend, anyone who openly predicted that last-place Maine would travel to Chestnut Hill and sweep then-No. 3 Boston College might have been checked into a mental institution.

That, though, is exactly what happened as Maine stifled the powerful BC offense and got plenty of offense to make both games against the Eagles runaways.

Maine coach Tim Whitehead said he’s been pleased with his team’s play for some time now but getting offense has been the biggest struggle.

“The thing that was different was that we were able to get some breathing room for Marty [goaltender Martin Ouellette], get some goals, which we haven’t been able to do on a consistent basis,” Whitehead said. “That took some pressure off of Marty. When your goalie knows that one mistake and he might not win the game, it was nice for him to get a lead both nights. It allowed him to play with more confidence and swagger.”

That goal scoring for Maine came from each of its top three lines. On Friday, the top two lines netted goals. On Saturday, the third line of Connor Leen and Steven and Jon Swavely accounted for three of the team’s four goals.

That balance is what Maine needs down the stretch to get itself back into the playoff hunt.

The most unknown fact about the Black Bears at this point may be that they’ve been pretty successful defensively. While Ouellette may have been the backup to Dan Sullivan to begin the season and took over the top spot when Sullivan struggled, goaltending can hardly be to blame for Maine’s struggles.

In fact, the Black Bears have allowed the second-lowest number of goals in Hockey East play this season, trailing only New Hampshire and goaltender Casey DeSmith.

Whitehead attributes much of that to a commitment to team defense that was necessary with a young team that had offensive concerns.

And then there’s Ouellette, easily a point of pride to Whitehead for the goaltender’s commitment to improvement. Whitehead is quick to admit that the junior’s play has been — and will be — key to this team having success.

“It’s definitely not an accident,” Whitehead said of Ouellette’s performance this season. “He has trained very hard throughout the summer and throughout the season. It’s all finally coming together for him.”

This weekend will be a major test for the Black Bears. Not only will Maine face difficult opponents in Providence and No. 13 Massachusetts-Lowell, it will be back at Alfond Arena where the Black Bears still haven’t earned a victory this season.

With six of Maine’s final 11 games on home ice, this team now needs to tackle its next major challenge: winning in front of the hometown faithful.

Lowell: Comeback for the ages, but also a bad precedent to set

Anyone who was part of the record crowd at Massachusetts-Lowell’s Tsongas Center last Saturday night saw what may have been one of the greatest games in the program’s history.

Trailing 4-1 in the third period, the River Hawks struck three times in the late minutes to tie the game and then won in overtime. After allowing Northeastern its fourth goal and a 4-1 lead, Lowell surrendered just two additional shots for the rest of regulation and overtime.

The dramatic victory came a night after Lowell scored twice late in the third to earn a 4-4 tie at Northeastern’s Matthews Arena.

Exciting, certainly. But for Lowell coach Norm Bazin, comebacks cannot become part of the team’s fabric.

“We don’t want to approach games in that same fashion. It was much too dramatic,” Bazin said. “We didn’t have the starts we were looking for. You might have that comeback every two years … maybe every five years.”

One issue for Lowell last weekend was inconsistency from a position that has been incredibly consistent all season: goaltending.

It was learned on Friday that rookie Connor Hellebuyck, who has been platooning in recent weeks with last year’s hero Doug Carr, would miss the weekend with an injury.

On Friday, after Carr gave up three goals, Bazin took the risk of yanking Carr in favor of Brian Robbins, a third-string goaltender who hadn’t seen a minute of work all season. Robbins played well and a night later Carr played well enough to earn the victory. But the consistency needs to return to that goaltending position if the River Hawks are to make a late run for home ice and an NCAA bid.

“We’ve had two guys to choose from for a good part of the season,” Bazin said. “The third guy came in in relief on Friday and did very well.”

Lowell, which played most of its hockey at home this season, will head to the road for the weekend and for a good portion of the season that remains. Seven of Lowell’s final 11 games will be on the road beginning this weekend against Merrimack on Friday (NESN, 6:30 p.m. EST) and Sunday at Maine.

Notes from the Beanpot

Monday will mark the start of the 61st annual Beanpot Tournament, arguably the greatest college hockey event of the regular season.

For the first time in a long time, none of the four teams enters the tournament playing very well. To note:

• No. 5 Boston College was swept by Maine last weekend and is 2-5-1 in its last eight games.

• Northeastern has just two wins in its last nine and couldn’t close out Lowell either night last weekend, taking just a single point despite having multiple-goal leads in the third both nights.

• Harvard has won just once since Nov. 16 and is battling injuries and struggling defensively.

• No. 11 Boston University may be the hottest team coming into the tournament, having taken three of four points against Providence last weekend. Yet BU has a losing record to all three other Beanpot teams this season.

One thing that may be exciting for fans is that they can expect plenty of goal scoring. Boston College has the top-ranked defense among the four teams at just 36th out of 59 teams nationally. Below them, in order, are Boston University (38th), Northeastern (51st) and Harvard (53rd).

BU coach Jack Parker laughed at the notion that his club could be considered the favorites heading into the annual tournament.

“I don’t know how we could be the favorite,” Parker said. “We lost to Northeastern, we lost to Harvard and we lost to BC twice.”

That said, Parker recognizes that his club is playing better of late, particularly last weekend in a key league series.

“We had a very good recovery this past weekend against Providence,” Parker said. “I thought we played very well in both of those games.”

Most people expect that BU will get past Northeastern despite a 6-5 loss less than two weeks ago to the Huskies. They also expect Boston College to get past Harvard, which would set up a BU-BC final for the 23rd time.

For BC to get there, it will have to play better than this past weekend. Coach Jerry York looks at his opponent in Harvard similar to Maine — a very good team that hadn’t had many breaks this season.

“We’re going through some ups and downs but understand some of the areas we need to work on,” York said. “[Harvard] is a team that hasn’t gotten a lot of bounces. They’ve been close and certainly, from my perspective, they’re a much better team than the record indicates, as was Maine. It’s about momentum and how you’re playing right now.

“We’ve got to be very good on Monday night to advance.”

If there is one team to watch out for in the tournament it is dark horse Northeastern. The Huskies offense has played well of late but the team has struggled defensively and in goal, particularly when closing out games. If that changes for two nights in February, we could see one of the best upsets in Beanpot history.

“Our kids have been in this tournament. They’ve lost in the final before,” coach Jim Madigan said. “They know they’re not at the stage we want to get on and we’ll lean on [the upperclassmen].”

Two interesting facts, as many think the Beanpot may be the BU Invitational because of the Terriers’ success at the event: No one on the current BU roster has hoisted the Beanpot and, if BU doesn’t win this year, it will be Parker’s first class to not win at least one Beanpot.

Conversely, Northeastern, which hasn’t won the title since 1988, has more players with Beanpot titles than BU (and Harvard, for that matter). Captain Vinny Saponari won the Beanpot as a freshman at Boston University. Saponari redshirted his sophomore year after transferring to Northeastern and now as a senior will play in his final Beanpot tournament.

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