ORONO — University of Maine men’s hockey coach Tim Whitehead expected his defense corps to be one of the team’s strengths this season and it certainly has been.
The Black Bears gave up 3.33 goals per game a year ago. Only 11 teams surrendered more.
But, so far this season, Maine has given up just 2.50 per game, which is 18th best.
The defense corps will face a stern test this weekend when the defending national champion Boston College Eagles entertain Maine tonight at 7 and Sunday afternoon at 1.
“They have a pretty good defense corps,” said Boston College senior left wing Joe Whitney who listed senior Jeff Dimmen and junior Will O’Neill as the leaders of Maine’s blue liners.
O’Neill will miss the series with a knee injury.
Boston University coach Jack Parker said he was “really impressed” with Maine’s defense corps following a 2-2 overtime tie against the Bears on Nov. 6. He observed that they were “great in front of the net” and “really good with the puck.”
Maine freshman goalie Dan Sullivan concurred.
“They’ve been phenomenal. They have been a huge part of our success,” said Sullivan. “They’re everything a goalie could ask for.”
There is plenty of experience on the blue line. They have five defensemen with at least 65 career games under their belts in Dimmen (116), senior Josh Van Dyk (114), senior Mike Banwell (86), O’Neill (81) and junior Ryan Hegarty (65). Sophomores Mark Nemec and Mike Cornell have appeared in 36 and 34 games, respectively. Cornell has actually been moved up to right wing although he will used on defense on the penalty kill. Freshman Brice O’Connor has appeared in two games.
The defensemen have also produced five goals, including two game-winners, and 19 assists in 10 games.
“They’ve done an excellent job,” said Whitehead. “They gained a lot of big-game experience down the stretch last year. They have kept us in every game with their defensive awareness and execution.”
Dimmen, an All-Hockey East second-team selection a year ago, said they benefit from being an experienced outfit and that “we’ve focused more on the defensive side of the game this year. We figure the goals will come.
“We’ve really tried to tighten up defensively,” said Dimmen. “It all starts from not turning the puck over in the key areas, keeping things simple and getting the puck in deep (to the offensive zone). We don’t want to fuel the other teams’ transition. We try to take away their time and space (with the puck). It’s a lot harder to make plays when we’re all over them. And we’ve gotten great goaltending when we’ve broken down.”
“The forwards have been coming back and doing a good job helping us defend,” said Banwell.
“We try to go north with the puck when we get it,” said Nemec. “We don’t fool around with it in our own zone. We want to get it up the ice and into the other team’s zone.”
The defensemen know they will have their hands full with BC’s swift-skating and talented forwards.
“We’ve got to tighten our gaps (between the forwards and defense) when BC is coming out of their zone,” said Banwell. “And we’ve got make sure we communicate back there and play strong, tight defense.”
“It’s going to be pretty intense. It’ll be a lot of fun,” said BC’s Whitney.