The University of Maine’s hockey team definitely exceeded expectations this season, especially when considering the various adversities that the Black Bears had to overcome including injuries and the suspension of starting goalie Scott Darling).
The Black Bears, picked to finish eighth in the Hockey East coaches preseason poll, overcame an opening-game loss to oust UMass Lowell in their best-of-three quarterfinal series. They then topped defending NCAA champion Boston University 5-2 in the semifinals and took Boston College, currently ranked third in the coun-try, to overtime in the Hockey East final before losing 7-6 in overtime.
Boston University was selected to win the Hockey East regular-season title and UMass Lowell was picked second.
The question now is can the Black Bears continue their progression and make a run at the NCAA championship next season?
If everybody who is eligible to return does so, Maine will have its top seven scorers and all of its defense corps back in the fold.
Maine had the nation’s best power play (27.7 percent efficiency) and nine of the 10 players who manned the two units will be back.
Maine’s 3.67 goals per game is fourth best in the country and an improvement of 1.47 over a year ago.
“Maine did a remarkable job coming back this year [after two 13-win seasons] and they should challenge for the championship next year,” said BC coach Jerry York.
The two things to keep an eye on are Hobey Baker Award finalist Gustav Nyqyuist and whether he signs with the Detroit Red Wings and the goaltending situation.
Nyquist, who leads the nation with 61 points (19 goals, 42 assists), is a fourth-round pick of the Red Wings. Detroit has been a college-friendly organization in the past.
“It looks like I’m coming back,” said Nyquist who could produce an even more memorable junior year if he continues to improve his strength, speed and shot.
The goaltending situation is very much up in the air and the Bears simply can’t go far without it.
Senior Dave Wilson turned in four superb playoff performances to lead Maine into the championship game where he and BC goalie John Muse had their struggles.
There is a cloud of uncertainty surrounding Scott Darling and the jury is out on Shawn Sirman.
Darling was 15-6-3 with a 3.10 goals-against average and a .895 save percentage before being suspended for violating team rules before the final regular season series against UMass. He has personal issues he is addressing.
He knows he let his teammates down and if he is determined to atone and can maintain his focus, he could supply Maine with the goaltending it will need to make a national championship run.
Sirman had some impressive outings like his 5-1 win at Merrimack College and his 4-0 exhibition-game victory over the United States Under-18 team. But he had to be lifted in two losses to UMass.
He will be improved after appearing in eight games this season.
But can he provide solid goaltending on a consistent basis?
“We have to shore up our goaltending,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead who intends to bring in “at least one goaltender” for next season.
“Shawn will be better next year,” added Whitehead.
The defense corps will have an impressive blend of players.
Will O’Neill (8 goals, 23 assists) and All-Hockey East second-team choice Jeff Dimmen (12 & 18) provide Maine with prolific point-producers and power-play specialists. Josh Van Dyk (1 & 17) more than doubled his offensive output from the previous year; Mike Banwell (3 & 2) and Ryan Hegarty (1 & 7) showed more de-fensive consistency and freshmen Mark Nemec (1 & 4) and Mike Cornell (0 & 3) were pleasant surprises.
Cornell could emerge as one of the best hitters since Prestin Ryan.
Offensive-minded Nick Pryor had an injury-marred first season but showed improvement.
Up front, the line of Nyquist, left wing Brian Flynn (19 & 28) and captain Tanner House (18 & 21) was one of the best in the country and, if all three return, the sky’s the limit next year.
“That line’s hard to control,” said York.
Flynn, like Nyquist, emerged as a dominant player and House, who is one of Maine’s top defensive forwards in addition to his offensive production, scored a goal in each of Maine’s last four playoff games.
One of the reasons they were able to be so productive was the emergence of secondary scorers who enabled them to stay together.
Linemates Spencer Abbott (9 & 19) and Robby Dee (13 & 12) along with freshmen Adam Shemansky (9 & 12), Joey Diamond (9 & 3) and Matt Mangene (1 & 10) gave Maine valuable scoring depth along with the defense corps. The hard-nosed Diamond evolved into a constant threat at the end of the season, notching three goals and an assist in the BU and BC games. He was chosen to the all-tourney team along with O’Neill and Nyquist.
Mangene, Maine’s best skater, can also be effective on the blue line with his ability to pull away from forecheckers.
Maine received productive minutes from role-playing forwards Theo Andersson (3 & 3), Klas Leidermark (2 & 4) and injury-plagued Kyle Solomon (1 & 3) and they could have more prominent roles next year if they can improve offensively.
Kyle Beattie (1 & 4) showed promise in limited duty.
Maine has five incoming forwards in Carlos Amestoy, Jon Swavely, Stuart Higgins, Kelen Corkum and Lewiston’s Mark Anthoine who could provide scoring depth that hasn’t been in evidence in Orono in several years.
This year’s 19-17-3 team also endeared itself to the Maine fans with its playoff run so Alfond Arena attendance could get a boost next year.
“If Maine keeps all of its players, they should be a favorite in the league next year along with BC,” said Northeastern coach Greg Cronin. “Those two teams have the most talent returning. Nyquist was the best player in the league and Flynn is a real difference-maker. Nyquist, O’Neill and Dimmen are elite players who give you instant credibility.
“And Maine played hard. They reminded me of the old Maine teams the way they pursued the puck,” Cronin added.
“We took a real good step this year but we aren’t where we want to be yet,” said Whitehead, who will be in the final year of his contract next season unless he receives an extension. “The work ethic and culture of the team is great to be around. It’s back to where it was in 2007 [Frozen Four team] and prior to that. This team brought a lot of passion back for Maine hockey.”