EAST LANSING — University of Maine coach Tim Whitehead had hoped that his team would benefit from a couple of needed lessons entering its men’s hockey series finale against Michigan State on Friday night.
First, Whitehead had hoped that the No. 8 Black Bears (1-1-2) would display more urgency after their season-opening series tie with Connecticut last Saturday. Second, after a penalty-filled contest on Thursday in Maine’s 4-4 tie — one where the Bears allowed MSU to make up two, two-goal deficits — he wanted his team to play with more discipline.
By the end of Friday’s night’s 3-2 loss to the No. 20 Spartans (1-0-1), the Black Bears’ coach wasn’t feeling like either lesson had taken hold.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy coming out here (because) Rick’s (Comley) such a great coach, but we had a tie (last weekend), a resounding victory over Lowell and I think we got a little comfortable,” Whitehead said. “We thought it was going to come easy when the fact is that it won’t. And with the sloppiness, the penalties obviously cost us tonight.”
Once again, the Black Bears couldn’t find their motor early enough to put an opponent back on its heels. That coupled with seven penalties — led by Joey Diamond’s three trips to the penalty box — in the first two periods left Maine in a tenuous position for much of the night.
Even after the Black Bears fought back to tie the contest with two goals by Spencer Abbott in the span of a school-record 10 seconds near the midway point of the third period.
“We had a great third period, but you can’t win a game playing one period against a real good team in their own rink,” Whitehead said. “So the penalties we took obviously cost us and I waited too long to bench (No.) 27 and some of the other guys, but once I did, the boys played well. But it was too little too late. This is a great wakeup call for us. Now, we know we’re not going to win if we get in the penalty box like that.
“We had a chance to capitalize on their penalties. Both teams took obviously too many penalties both nights and we had a chance once we tied it up to win it, but you can’t rely on one 20 minutes of hockey to win a game. I was disappointed with the lack of composure and urgency in those minutes where we took some penalties that certainly cost us the game.”
The Black Bears had their chances on the night and must have felt they were close when Kyle Beattie and Wes O’Neill rang wide-open chances off the post during the first two periods.
But every time it looked as though the momentum was going to swing Maine’s way, penalties or missed assignments ended the threat.
“Our No. 1 priority was to stay out of the box tonight,” Abbott said. “We talked about it five hours before the three games, no penalties, and we went out there and did the complete opposite and it cost us.”
Gustav Nyquist made very good passing plays on both of Abbott’s tallies, but for the most part, the MSU defensive strategy kept him bottled up in even-man situations.
“We took away their zone, we took away Nyquist down low and the top guys’ ability to set up the puck,” Comley said. “I thought our guys did a great job in the zone.”
MSU’s hard work coupled with Maine’s miscues on the weekend sent the Black Bears home Maine with a single point on the weekend.
“There were some good moments,” said Whitehead. “The guys really stepped up and killed it off. That gave us an opportunity to come back and we did, but now we’ve left ourselves with no wiggle room. Dimmen steps up inthe neutral zone, one of their players makes a great shot and puts it in the net and that’s what happens when you’re not focused (and can’t) stay out of the box for 40 minutes. You can’t do it in 20 (minutes).”
That was proven when senior defenseman Jeff Dimmen turned the puck over in the neutral zone with a little more than six minutes left, Spartan defenseman Brock Shelgren scooped it up and raced up ice. As Shelgren gained the neutral zone, senior forward Dustin Gazley caught up on the left side and took a perfect pass in stride that he shot past Sullivan at the near post.