Will O’Neill will have a little extra incentive this weekend when the University of Maine’s freshman defenseman-turned-center and his mates travel to take on the University of New Hampshire for a two-game set. The archrivals will play tonight in Durham and Saturday night in Manchester, N.H.
O’Neill had verbally committed to attend UNH but UNH withdrew its scholarship offer so O’Neill wound up in Orono.
UNH coach Dick Umile said their decision was an “academics” issue.
O’Neill has a different opinion.
“I don’t really like to get into it,” said O’Neill. “I made the dean’s list here. I was a 3.3 [grade-point average] student [in the first semester]. I don’t know how much they can say about my academics.
“At the time [UNH withdrew its offer], I wasn’t playing as well as they thought I would,” O’Neill stated.
O’Neill played his first game at center in Maine’s 2-1 win over UMass on Sunday that ended Maine’s nine-game winless skid (0-7-2). He had an assist while manning the point on the power play. He finished with three shots on goal.
O’Neill has two goals and eight assists in 22 games including a goal in a 5-4 loss to UNH on Jan. 4.
“I’m glad to see he’s playing well for them. They’re [the O’Neills] a great family,” said Umile.
O’Neill, a Salem, Mass. native, said he isn’t going to let UNH’s decision to revoke his scholarship offer impact him.
“I’m going to try to take it like any other game,” said O’Neill. “Obviously I want to win. Obviously I want to score. But I’m going to try to keep my emotions intact.”
O’Neill is getting adjusted to his new position. He said he played 10 games at forward in junior hockey but that was the first time he had been a forward since “squirts (8-10 year-olds).
“I’m just trying to do what I’ve been told,” said O’Neill. “It’s OK. It’s obviously not what I would prefer but it’s what we need so I’m going to play and try to play as hard as I can. I haven’t played there enough to really capture it or anything like that and feel 100 percent comfortable. But it’s getting better. So I’ll try to figure it out.”
Senior defenseman and co-captain Simon Danis-Pepin was impressed with O’Neill’s performance at center.
“He did a great job up front. He brought a lot of intensity to the game. He got a lot of [scoring] chances. And he’s on the power play and did a great job there. Whether he’s on defense or offense, he brings a lot to our team and it’s important to have him out there,” said Danis-Pepin.
Maine has had trouble scoring even-strength goals lately, collecting just six in its last nine games.
The top line of sophomore Tanner House between freshmen Gustav Nyquist and Brian Flynn has just two even-strength goals over the last 14 games.
Part of the reason is each team either assigns a checking line to cover them or they make sure whichever line plays against them concentrates on defense first.
“It’s tough going up against older, stronger players. We’ve got to try to spend as much time as we can in the offensive zone,” said Flynn.
“[Nyquist] and I have been trying to do too much,” Flynn added. “We have to simplify our game. We have to get as many pucks to the net as possible and crash the net. We’ve been trying to make too many fancy plays.”
“We need to get more traffic in front so we get ugly goals instead of just getting nice goals,” said Nyquist.
“We’ve got to keep shooting the puck from everywhere,” said House.
Meanwhile, junior Dave Wilson will get his fourth straight start in net and he will be looking for the first road win of his career.
“I’m pretty excited about it,” said Wilson. “They’re a tough team to play against because they work the puck around very well, especially on rushes. They have very talented players.
“The big thing for me will be to focus on every save and each play [one] at a time. I’m going to focus on five-minute increments during each period,” said Wilson.