Having entered the November portion of its schedule, Maine sits atop the standings in Hockey East. That may not sound all the impressive, given the Black Bears have played five games and nobody else has played more than four. Vermont has only played one conference game, and along with Boston College, has a perfect record in league play.
Yes, Maine’s .700 winning percentage in the circuit may only be the fourth-best mark, but to fully appreciate its seven points from a 3-1-1 record, including a win over No. 6 Boston University, one must remember where the Black Bears were a year ago.
Maine entered December 2013 winless, and was still looking for its first Hockey East win as the new year arrived. There were reasons for this. The Black Bears were hardly a juggernaut in the prior season of 2012-13, when they won only two league games and five overall. Then former coach Maria Lewis was placed on administrative leave in September and resigned at the end of October due to questions concerning the program’s compliance with NCAA rules. Her assistants, husband and wife Richard and Sara Reichenbach, took over the coaching position jointly on an interim basis.
“I think the Christmas break was a huge step for us, just letting go of the first semester and reviewing what worked for us and what didn’t,” Richard Reichenbach said.
Slowly, things started to improve. Maine got its first league win, 1-0, over Providence, on Jan. 19. February, it had a winning month, its first in two years, going 4-3. That gained a fifth-place finish in Hockey East and resulted in a 117-plus minute marathon playoff game at Vermont. In that contest, the Black Bears dropped behind early and tied it up with just over three minutes left in regulation before ultimately falling, 3-2.
“I think the second half and February and our playoff game and some of the success we had down the road definitely helped us understand the plan that me and Sara had in place was one that could work and one that could have success,” Reichenbach said.
In July, he was named the new coach of the program with his wife as an assistant, and he added former St. Cloud State goaltender Kendall Newell to his staff in August.
“Having a plan and having five months to prepare for a season was incredibly helpful,” Reichenbach said. “Just having the time to review the season before; also, seeing what you think can work and what didn’t work and the direction that you want the team to go as opposed to do that on the go in the middle of the season has been a huge part of our development this year so far.”
There were also benefits from the journey the returners shared last year.
“I think the end of the year last year really helped us for the start of this year,” goaltender Meghann Treacy said. “I think where we left off last year, we just kind of continued to grow from that. We never went back any steps. We just continued growing into the summer and with our off-season workouts.”
In particular, there were was growth in the triple-overtime game versus Vermont.
“I think back to that game a lot,” Treacy said. “It was honestly one of the most memorable games of my life. It was so much fun. Our team came back from a two-goal deficit. We just worked so hard. I did everything I could to make sure my team got a ‘W.’ Every shot I got, I just made sure I had it, made sure I had total confidence in myself and my team. It was one of the greatest feelings, knowing that I was there for my team and keeping them in that game.”
She finished the day with 46 saves.
The gains weren’t merely made on the ice.
“The biggest part of that game for us as a program, I think, is just the bonding and the chemistry that we developed through one game,” Reichenbach said. “We had had some success down the stretch, but being able to play at the level that we felt we did in that game for six periods is something that one, I think they’ll never forget, an experience they’ll always remember as a hockey player. But being able to go through that with their teammates and sitting in the locker room in between periods time after time after time and almost not believing that that was actually happening, and then being able to go out there and have success and play the way that they wanted to, I think was a huge step for them and something that did boost their confidence and help them become closer as a program.”
That sort of postseason experience can leave a team hungry for more.
“The excitement of the playoffs is something truly special, and no matter whether it’s home or away, every team in the league is pretty excited,” Reichenbach said. “Especially this year, when it moves to a series.”
While Hockey East’s new best-of-three series takes away the drama of a single-game knockout, past postseasons in other leagues have resulted in series that go the distance and feature multiple overtime games.
“We haven’t talked much about playoffs and like what we want towards end of the season,” Treacy said. “We’re kind of just focusing on each weekend. Obviously, it’s in the back of our minds, it’s something we want, having that home-ice advantage, something we’ve always wanted as a group. We’re just kind of taking one game at a time and seeing how it goes from there.”
The Black Bears do a lot of things as a group, and that usually includes scoring goals.
“I think it kind of goes more into the philosophy that we have as a program where it is going to be a total team effort,” Reichenbach said. “I don’t know if it makes it easier or harder, because I’m sure there are some nights where if you just have that kid who can put in a couple goals and maybe not play so great and get the victory, but I think the players really understand that for us to be successful and for us to accomplish our goals that every single player on our roster who dresses in a Maine uniform has to play that night. It’s going to be scoring by committee, and it’s not going to be one person going end-to-end and scoring a pretty goal, it’s going to be a breakout involving five people, some sort of dump in and a hard forecheck, and we’re going to have to generate offense that way.”
Through 11 games, nobody has more than five points, on a roster where nobody has more than 45 points as a collegian. That can produce some droughts; Maine endured a stretch where it was shut out in five out of six games.
Lately, the offense has been on the rise. The team is unbeaten over its last three games. where it has totaled eight goals.
“With practices, we’ve put a lot of emphasis on finishing,” Treacy said. “You get that first shot, and the emphasis is to crash the net, get that rebound, put it in the back of the net. I think at key times, my team gets excited. You can tell the difference between them getting overexcited about that rebound and getting it in and just actually finishing what they’ve been doing. They’ve been doing a great job of it lately. Putting in that second effort, just really moving the goalie and not just giving her easy shots, but just like attacking the net.”
Treacy has had to exercise patience in her own game. When she arrived at Orono, she was one of four goaltenders on the roster and sat out a redshirt season and learned from one of the best.
“Brittany Ott was very special in that she could make saves that very few goaltenders can make in our league, and she could pull off stuff that was jaw dropping,” Reichenbach said.
More than what she could do in the crease, Treacy learned from Ott’s attitude.
“If things didn’t turn out her way, she kept up that positive attitude and she always kept that confidence in herself and the team,” Treacy said. “Even her last year where we really weren’t winning, but she, I think more than any other player on the team, she had more confidence in us than most of the other girls.”
Now a redshirt junior, Treacy is in her second year as the starter, and she’s trying to pass on lessons to her understudy, sophomore Mariah Fujimagari.
“Playing under a goalie is never the easiest thing,” Treacy said. “Just take full advantage of the opportunities that you do get. I think she has done that quite well. The time is going to come, and when it comes, it’s like the best thing ever. Those times when you are the starting goalie are some moments that you’ll never forget.”
The two have combined to form a goaltending tandem that holds opponents under two goals per game.
“I think some nights, they do make some pretty incredible saves and keep us in the game, but I think other games our team played really well defensively whether they got 20 shots or 40 shots, there weren’t too many scoring chances,” Reichenbach said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily the way that we have approached things, but I think as a coaching staff, we definitely understand that you can’t have success in any Division-I league without really strong goaltending.”
The Black Bears need goaltending, plus, they need everyone else as well.
“We’re a very gritty, hardworking team,” Reichenbach said. “I think that the way that we play is relentless, and we try and take every battle in all three zones with the same importance, whether we’re playing for a puck for a breakaway or whether we’re diving to block a shot, and that’s kind of the expectation we have on all of our players. Audra Richards scored 15 goals last year; her role is still to block shots and to play strong defensively, and we really try and emphasize that to all team members.”
As far as teams go, the Reichenbachs form a pretty good one in the coaching ranks.
“I’m just lucky that I can look across the bench and have Sara as my wife,” Reichenbach said. “Sara is amazing. Obviously, there is success in some other sports with husband and wife combos, but when looking at how things work, it’s really, really easy for us, because Sara is a great hockey mind, she was a great hockey player at St. Lawrence, and knows the game really well. We work really well as a combo and it makes meeting as a staff much easier, because we can have so many conversations at any point about what we want to do as a team.”
Where might it lead? That remains to be determined. But more than 10 years ago when she was still Sara Simard, the current Maine assistant coach was a Saints teammate for three years of the then Shannon Smith, who proved at Clarkson that it’s possible for a coaching couple to achieve the ultimate success in women’s NCAA hockey.