ORONO — Over the weekend, the University of Maine Black Bears became just the fourth team to sweep the University of North Dakota men’s hockey team over the Fighting Sioux’s last 81 two-game series dating back to the 2005-2006 season.
Maine triumphed 7-3 and 4-2.
The Bears straggled into the series with a three-game winless streak (0-1-2) following a convincing 8-2 victory over UMass Lowell in their opener.
“We played well for 60 minutes each night. We played hard and stuck to the game plan. That’s something we hadn’t done in the previous three games,” said junior left wing Brian Flynn, who had three goals in the series. “We simplified our game. We chipped a lot of pucks into the (offensive) zone and then got possession (of the puck). Our defensemen also played simple. They got pucks out (of the defensive zone) quickly before they got run into the glass.”
North Dakota’s No. 2 ranking gave the Bears added motivation, according to junior left wing Spencer Abbott.
“We knew what we had to do to get the job done. (In the previous three games), we thought we could get away with a little bit more than we actually could. We ad-libbed too much,” Abbott said.
“Everybody had those games against North Dakota circled on their calendar,” said junior defenseman Will O’Neill. “They were the number two team in the country and they had so many draft picks (16). So they had big bulls-eyes on their backs. We wanted to get after them and we knew if we scored early, we could get the crowd into it. And when the crowd gets going, that lights us up.”
Robby Dee scored just 43 seconds into Friday night’s game to set the tone.
Senior defenseman Josh Van Dyk speculated that the team may have taken an “underdog mindset” into the series.
“We knew we had to play harder and do everything right in order to win,” said Van Dyk. “We have to approach every game like that. The plain fact was we didn’t want to play like we did the last three games. Everybody came ready. We prepared hard last week in practice.”
Maine coach Tim Whitehead said they had a good week in practice “where we really focused on executing a lot of little things on offense and defense. We regained some confidence preparing and then it was just a question of staying focused in the game. One of the big differences was we were able to maintain our discipline and composure and North Dakota let it slip away a couple of times.”
Maine had 19 power plays in the series compared to UND’s 10. Maine had four five-on-threes while UND didn’t have one.
Whitehead switched one winger on all four of his lines entering the weekend and it paid off.
Flynn had been on the top line with Tanner House and Gustav Nyquist but he swapped spots with Abbott, who was on a line with Dee and Joey Diamond.
Lewiston freshman left wing Mark Anthoine moved up from the fourth line to third line with Matt Mangene and Kyle Beattie. Adam Shemansky, who had been their left wing, moved to right wing on the fourth line with Klas Leidermark and Theo Andersson. Andersson switched from the right wing to left wing.
“It obviously worked well,” said Flynn. “All four lines clicked. The top two lines did most of the scoring but the third and fourth lines gave us some big minutes, especially on the penalty kill and after a couple of power plays in a row.”
Abbott added, “I don’t know if it was the lines. Everybody just came out and played as hard as they could.”
The Bears liked the changes, said Whitehead.
“It wasn’t perfect. Sometimes if you just juggle one guy here or there, it gives the team a little spark,” he said. “We were pleased with how things ended up going. That’s not to say we wouldn’t jumble them again, which we might.”
Whitehead had harped on playing “clean” and that came to fruition. The Black Bears rarely turned the puck over in critical areas.
“We made very few mental mistakes,” said Whitehead, who was also pleased with goalies Shawn Sirman and Dan Sullivan. “We played as a team, we didn’t have any major lapses and we played with poise.”
Van Dyk added, “We concentrated on playing strong team defense first. We knew if we did that, our offense would come.”
Maine’s penalty-killing has also shown dramatic improvement.
Maine has killed 19 of the last 20 power plays after allowing five power-play goals over the first 16 attempts.
“That has been stressed a lot in practice lately,” said Van Dyk. “(Whitehead) has been real thorough going over it. Guys have been stepping up and blocking more shots and we haven’t gotten running around as much as we were early on.”
“We have taken a step there,” said Whitehead. “It’s something we have to continue to focus on. We’re an offensive-minded team at heart, which is great because we know we can score goals if we get behind. But we have to focus on our defensive responsibility with and without the puck.”
The seventh-ranked 3-1-2 Black Bears visit Vermont on Saturday night.