ORONO, Maine – For the second year in a row, the University of Maine men’s hockey team is stumbling into the Hockey East quarterfinals.
Maine, the fourth seed, went 2-6 in its last eight games and lost its last three home games entering this weekend’s best-of-three series against the visiting UMass Lowell River Hawks, the fifth seed.
Maine went 0-7-1 over its last eight regular season games a year ago and was the eighth seed before rebounding for two impressive performances against eventual national champion Boston University, a 2-1 loss and 6-3 win, before succumbing to BU 6-2 in the final game.
“It’s pretty much a whole new season right now. We didn’t finish the way we wanted to but we have a new season to look forward to. Everybody starts from scratch. It’s nice we were able to secure home ice,” said junior defenseman and assistant captain Jeff Dimmen.
“We’ve got to put [the 2-6 finish] behind us,” said freshman left wing Adam Shemansky. “We’ve got to focus on little details in practice and make sure we’re prepared for Lowell.”
“We got on a little run for a while there and we thought we were too good and got a little cute instead of playing the way we’re supposed to,” said sophomore right wing and leading scorer Gustav Nyquist. “Maine hockey is playing hard, getting the puck deep [into the offensive zone], working down low and getting the puck to the net.”
Senior right wing David deKastrozza concurred.
“We have to keep it simple. We have to get the puck deep, not turn the puck over at the blue line, not make any hope [risky] passes up the middle and backcheck hard,” said deKastrozza. “We can’t be trying any dipsy-doodles [fancy plays]. We need to take hits for each other and play as a team, not as individuals.”
Maine had a nine-game (7-0-2) unbeaten streak from Nov. 21 to Jan. 9 and, following road losses to Boston College and Providence, Maine strung together a four-game unbeaten streak (3-0-1) which led into the current 2-6 skid.
In four of the six losses, Maine has surrendered the first goal and, on three occasions, the goals came within the game’s first five minutes.
“Teams have been getting on us right away, getting that first goal and we’ve had trouble bouncing back,” said junior center and captain Tanner House. “We have to get off to better starts or, if we do give up the first goal, we’ve got to bounce back quicker.”
The other glaring problem during the stretch has been team defense and goaltending.
In the six losses, Maine has given up 31 goals (5.17 per game) on 171 shots for a dismal save percentage of .819.
“We strongly need to focus on team defense for the playoffs,” said junior defenseman Mike Banwell, who added that the players met after Saturday night’s loss to UMass and decided to amp up the focus in practice and “get at it hard.”
Dimmen said they must become more consistent.
“We’ll play five good minutes in a period or 10 minutes and then we’ll let up,” said Dimmen. “We’ve got to play 60 minutes and play defensively for 60 minutes.”
With sophomore goalie Scott Darling suspended indefinitely for violating team rules and freshman Shawn Sirman being pulled for ineffectiveness in two losses to UMass last weekend, senior Dave Wilson appears to have the inside track for Friday night’s start.
Wilson said he intends to see “a lot of shots in practice” in preparation for the series.
“They’re a very offensive team. They have a lot of seniors and juniors with a lot of experience and they’ll be driving the net and shooting from everywhere. They know what to do,” said Wilson. “They have some very skilled players. I was very excited to get in the other night and gain more experience. All I’m concerned about right now is my rebound control, cushioning anything from wide angles and controlling them and getting them into the corners.”