The Maine Black Bears enter the Christmas break with an 8-4-4 record, 6-3-2 in Hockey East and coach Tim Whitehead is looking forward to the season’s second half.
“If we can get healthy, I feel we can have a strong second half and compete for the NCAA Tournament again. I’m really looking forward to it,” said Whitehead.
Whitehead readily admits that he is a “little frustrated with our results right now,” but he is optimistic.
“We could arguably have just two losses right now. But I also understand what we had to fight through,” said Whitehead, referring to their catalog of injuries and inexperience in net.
In the eight games they didn’t win, the Bears had third-period leads in five of them.
In those five games, Maine was unable to extend those advantages into more comfortable margins, they had some glaring defensive breakdowns and they didn’t get the crucial saves they needed.
The power play went an alarming 0-for-33 until Brian Flynn snapped the skid with the game-winner in Sunday’s 4-1 win over Massachusetts.
The power-play drought proved costly.
In the ties and losses, Maine went a dismal 5-for-51 on the power play while opponents went 9-for-41 with the man advantage.
To make matters worse, Maine has allowed five shorthanded goals, and two of them transformed potential wins into ties.
In its wins, Maine has gone 12-for-52 on the power play while opponents have gone 6-for-42.
However, the Black Bears have been without their top two power-play point men in Will O’Neill (sidelined the last seven games with a knee injury) and Jeff Dimmen (four games with an ankle injury), but Whitehead said he is optimistic that O’Neill will be back in the lineup for their next two games in the Florida College Classic (Dec. 29-30) and Dimmen will be back for the Merrimack game on Jan. 8.
“That will give us a huge lift, especially on the power play,” said sophomore left wing Adam Shemansky. “Those guys are key for us in any situation.”
O’Neill had 22 of his 31 points on the power play a year ago and Dimmen had 17 of his 30 with the man advantage.
Flynn said the propensity for blowing leads is inexplicable.
“(Whitehead) has always said that it isn’t like the old days when it was pretty easy to protect a lead going into the third period,” said Flynn. “With all the penalties they call, it’s a lot tougher to protect those leads. So you have to focus more on extending the lead.”
Whitehead said no lead is safe.
“You used to be able to obstruct and interfere, but you can’t any more,” he said. “So we aren’t going to play it safe.”
The oddity is that the third period has been Maine’s best in terms of outscoring its opponents as the Bears have a 20-13 edge over the final 20 minutes.
“The bottom line is we know we’re in great condition. We’ve played well in the third period,” said Whitehead.
But he reiterated that their inability to score insurance goals and their inexperience in goal have cost them.
Flynn and Shemansky feel they are capable of making a strong second-half run.
“Obviously, we aren’t completely thrilled with our results so far. But we have things to build on,” said Shemansky. “We can be as good as we want to be. We’re very confident that we can go far this year.”
Flynn added, “We know how to be successful. We’ve got to use our speed, get pucks deep (into the offensive zone) and work the other teams’ defense. We’ve got to simplify things. We know what our strengths are and we need to continue to use them.”
The Bears still have several more injuries to deal with. In addition to O’Neill and Dimmen, valuable penalty-killing left winger Theo Andersson was sidelined for seven games due to a groin pull and three of Maine’s top six forwards: Gustav Nyquist (upper body), Joey Diamond (ankle) and Tanner House (lower body) have been playing with nagging injuries. Sophomore center Klas Leidermark (knee) has been wearing a brace.
The time off will certainly be beneficial and Whitehead noted that the return of Dimmen and O’Neill and a healthier Nyquist, Diamond and House should significantly jumpstart the power play.
“One of the big positives is we’ve learned a lot about our team,” said Whitehead. “We’ve started to get clarity in our goaltending position. It has been solidifying. Dan Sullivan has been our most consistent goaltender and has played the bulk of games. But Martin Ouellette has come on very strong and shown tremendous improvement and promise. And you can’t rule Shawn Sirman out of the mix, either.”
Sullivan (5-3-1, 2.44 goals-against average, .892 save percentage) and Ouellette (1-1-1, 2.25, .908) are freshmen and Sirman (2-0-2, 2.61, .911) is a sophomore.
Whitehead said he has been encouraged by the recent play of third- and fourth-line forwards Matt Mangene, Kyle Beattie, Shemansky, Jon Swavely and Mark Antoine along with right wing/defenseman Nick Pryor and freshman defenseman Brice O’Connor.
He has also been pleased with the penalty-killing, which has killed off 15 of 16 chances over the last four games.