The University of Maine men’s hockey team has certainly surprised everyone with its 10-5-1 start.
The Bears were 6-8-2 at this stage last year en route to a disappointing 13-18-3 season and a ninth-place finish in Hockey East.
Maine is the only team in Hockey East that didn’t return at least four of its top six scorers. Maine didn’t return any of its six leading scorers.
Add to that its inexperience in the most important position on the ice (goaltender) and it made perfect sense when the league’s coaches picked the Bears to finish ninth this season.
Maine has been playing 12 to 14 freshmen and sophomores every night.
Despite the Bears’ start, there is still a long road to negotiate and no shortage of obstacles.
Maine has yet to play Boston University, New Hampshire, UMass Lowell and UMass and has two difficult road games at Boston College, the defending national champion.
But there is reason for cautious optimism.
Maine is known as Goaltender University, producing nine goalies since 1986 who have played in the NHL.
And freshman Scott Darling is off to the best start in school history with his 1.41 goals-against average and .944 save percentage to go with his 8-3-1 record. He leads Hockey East in GAA and save percentage and is fifth and fourth, nationally, in those two categories.
“The remarkable aspect is how consistent he has been,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “When you have a freshman with elite [level] potential, you’ll usually see some flashes of it. But he has brought a consistently high level of play.”
In his 12 starts, the 6-foot-5 Darling hasn’t allowed more than three goals and he has surrendered three goals just twice.
Darling is similar to 6-foot-7 Ben Bishop, who passed up his senior year this season to sign with the St. Louis Blues and has already played for his hometown team.
One difference is Darling is more under control, thus making better use of his 6-5 frame. He is also very effective clearing the puck when he leaves a rebound.
“I don’t find myself scrambling any more. Every now and then you have to make a sprawling save,” Darling said. “That comes with the territory of being a goaltender. But, in juniors, I’d make sprawling saves when I didn’t have to and if I gave up a rebound, it was in the net,” said Darling.
He is also quick to credit goalie coach Dave Alexander and his teammates for his success as well he should.
All of his teammates are willing to block shots and the forwards have been extremely conscientious defensively.
It is a young, hard-working team which is grittier than recent ones.
And Dave Wilson was sharp in his last two starts (52 saves on 55 shots) giving Maine a useable backup goalie.
On the defensive
The defense corps was expected to be a strength and it has been. The seven who have seen playing time have made good decisions with the puck, limited their turnovers and been tenacious in their puck battles. They have also made good breakout passes and used their mobility to jump into the attack.
The defensemen have combined for 33 points so far. Last year’s corps finished with 60.
“They’ve been very consistent. You know you’re going to get a strong defensive performance from them every night but we’ve also received a lot more production [offensively] than we’ve had in recent years,” said Whitehead.
Senior co-captain Simon Danis-Pepin (5 assists) has emerged as a shutdown defenseman and fellow senior Matt Duffy (2 goals, 3 assists) has made dramatic improvements in his defensive consistency.
Freshman Will O’Neill (1 & 5) has been so effective offensively that he has become a regular on the power play. Sophomore Jeff Dimmen (2 & 3) has a nice blend of agility and toughness; Josh Van Dyk (0 & 6) has started to exhibit his offensive skills while Mike Banwell (0 & 4) and Ryan Hegarty (0 & 2) have been efficient net-front defenders with grit.
Five of Maine’s defensemen have received power-play duty.
Whitehead has also been pleased with the progress of freshman Mark Nemec, who has yet to play.
“We take a lot of pride in our defensive zone play and that should really help us in the second half,” said Duffy.
“Our team defense has been huge,” said Danis-Pepin.
Whitehead and his staff have done an impressive job establishing an identity for this team and getting the players to follow it: defense first.
This team cannot afford to give up three goals in a game. It simply doesn’t have enough elite level scorers to win a high-scoring game.
So they don’t gamble offensively unless they are trailing and need to.
Maine’s 1.75 goals-against average is seventh best in the country.
The Bears will have to continue to get numbers on the defensive side of the puck and limit the number of odd-man rushes.
More goals needed
Offensively, Maine has scored just 2.38 goals per game but the Bears have been opportunistic when they’ve needed to be.
Maine has scored seven goals in the last 8:19 of the third period to either break a tie, expand a lead to two goals or tie the game.
“We need to get to the net more in the second half and score more goals,” said Danis-Pepin.
The Bears have a legitimate top line in freshman wings Gustav Nyquist (9 & 7) and Brian Flynn (5 & 6) flanking sophomore center Tanner House (5 & 5).
Nyquist is dynamic and is a nightmare for opposing defensemen with his quickness, ice balance, puck skills and tenacity. He is a rare combination of finesse, speed and toughness.
He also kills penalties and, if he can handle it, Whitehead ought to consider double-shifting him in certain situations.
House is a solid two-way center and Flynn is a tireless worker with an offensive flair who always seems to be in the right place.
House is not a natural goal scorer, notching just 28 in his last two years of juniors combined, but he should score at least 15 with the chances he’ll receive on a line with Nyquist and Flynn. House needs to work on his release and make sure he puts his shots on net.
That line will have to deal with being shadowed. Opponents may even construct a special checking line to neutralize them.
That means Maine must get more production from its second line and occasional goals from its third and fourth lines.
“We’ve got to get to the net more and score more goals,” said Danis-Pepin.
“We have to establish a legitimate second line,” said Whitehead. “[Senior center] Chris Hahn has been fabulous. He’s been the glue of the second line. We’ve had different wingers with him and he’s done a tremendous job making sure that line has always had a positive influence on the game.”
Hahn is one of Maine’s best puck pursuers and has four goals and six assists but doesn’t have a goal in his last nine games.
Freshman Kyle Solomon and sophomore Robby Dee (1 & 2) have flanked him. Solomon has one assist but has exhibited a quick release and the ability to put his shots on net from all angles.
Dee has two goals in 34 career games but once scored 49 goals in a season at the Breck School (Minn.) and the Maine staff is hoping he can regain his scoring touch.
Crafty freshman Spencer Abbott (2 & 4), hard-nosed sophomore Lem Randall (2 & 3) and skillful junior Kevin Swallow (1 & 0) would be other viable second-line candidates along with sophomores Keif Orsini (1 & 3) and Glenn Belmore (0 & 1).
Senior co-captain Jeff Marshall (1 & 1) and converted defenseman Brett Carriere (2 & 0) have combined for four points but supply Whitehead with two-thirds of an exceptional checking line and two top-notch penalty-killers. They have had a number of different wingers with them.
Get more pucks to the net
Maine’s 91.8 percent penalty-killing percentage is seventh best in the nation.
The Black Bear power play is at 16.5 percent and has been up-and-down as could be expected with its inexperience.
However, more importantly, Maine is plus-10 in special teams play with 15 power-play goals and two shorthanded goals compared with seven power-play goals allowed. Maine hasn’t given up a shorthanded goal.
Maine has to do a better job getting pucks to the net on the power play. The shooters must find ways to free themselves so they can get shots through.
The Bears also need to improve their ability to one-time the puck.
Maine must continue to improve and win close games if it is to make a run at a top four finish in Hockey East and an NCAA Tournament berth.