One of the comedic lines delivered by Oliver Hardy to his cohort, Stan Laurel, was “Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”
The University of Maine men’s hockey team’s 5-4 loss to New Hampshire on Saturday night had an ending that bordered on black comedy for Maine fans.
And it has gotten the Black Bears into a “fine mess” when it comes to their NCAA Tournament aspirations. They are also five points adrift from hosting a Hockey East quarterfinal series.
Maine had rallied from a pair of one-goal deficits in the third period against UNH and had its best player, Gustav Nyquist, gazing at an empty net as he was tripped by UNH goalie Matt Di Girolamo, who had tried in vain to pokecheck him on a breakaway.
While falling forward, Nyquist shot the puck toward the empty net only to have it hit the inside of the near post and glance away with 37 seconds left in regulation.
UNH’s Paul Thompson then won it by scoring from a near-impossible angle with 15.3 seconds left as it went in off the back of Maine goalie Shawn Sirman.
This was just the latest in a season-long series of misadventures that have left the 11-9-6 Black Bears (8-7-4 in Hockey East) probably needing to win the Hockey East Tournament to earn their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2007.
There have been a number of reasons behind their 5-8-3 mark over the last 16 games, but the primary reason has been inexperienced and inconsistent goaltending.
When Scott Darling was suspended for the third time just before the Hockey East playoffs a year ago, the handwriting was on the wall.
The 6-foot-6 Darling, who would have been a junior this year, and Maine coach Tim Whitehead decided over the summer that it was in Darling’s best interest and the best interest of the program to part ways.
Darling certainly had his share of inconsistencies, particularly in the second half of his two seasons, but the Bears wouldn’t be in this predicament if he had returned because he had experience.
That left the goaltending in the hands of sophomore Sirman, who saw just 277 minutes, 30 seconds of action a year ago, and freshmen Dan Sullivan and Martin Ouellette. All have shown signs of brilliance, but all have also let in a number of soft goals, including ones at inopportune times.
Experience is important for a goaltender, especially when playing in a conference that has produced the last three national champions.
The teams ahead of the fifth-place Bears — Boston College, New Hampshire, Boston University and Merrimack — all have either a senior or junior between the pipes. Maine has gone 1-7-2 against those four teams.
Maine’s goaltending inconsistency was anticipated, but it was hoped one or two of them would emerge to supply reliable and steady goaltending over the second half of the season. It hasn’t happened yet and you have to have it if you’re going to go anyplace.
Maine has the league’s worst save percentage in Hockey East games at .882.
But there is still time with eight regular-season games remaining. And they are capable of winning the tournament if they can get key saves.
Sullivan had been the most consistent but hasn’t played since Jan. 8 due to a knee injury. He could be back this weekend against Vermont.
In Maine’s seven Hockey East losses, the Bears have outshot their opponents 243-183 and have generated 196 Grade-A (high-percentage) scoring attempts to the opponents’ 140.
They have been outscored 34-15 in those seven losses. The other four teams have been getting the crucial saves from their goalies.
But it isn’t just the goaltending that has been the problem.
There have been some injuries to key personnel, there have been terrible defensive lapses, especially in the third period, and they haven’t buried some high-percentage scoring chances that could have produced wins.
In addition, three of the goals that have resulted in ties instead of wins were shorthanded goals among the eight they have allowed.
Nobody is pointing fingers at the goalies.
“We’ve been giving up some quality chances in the slot and also at the back door,” said senior center and captain Tanner House.
“We haven’t been clearing rebounds for them,” said Nyquist. “We’ve got to clear rebounds.”
Whitehead said, “The ice time these goalies have received will only make them stronger. They’ll get better and better because of the adversity they’re going through. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
Maine is 23rd in the PairWise Rankings that emulate the NCAA Tournament selection process. The five league tournament champions and 11 at-large teams will qualify for the NCAA tourney.
The Bears have just two games remaining against teams under consideration for the NCAA tourney: a two-game set Feb. 25-26 against Merrimack. The others are two-game series with Vermont, UMass Lowell and UMass.
Maine trails Merrimack and BU by five points and has played one fewer game than BU. But BU has the tiebreaker.
Maine needs to get within striking distance (four points or less) of Merrimack when the surprising Warriors visit Orono. Merrimack has a home-and-home series with league co-leader New Hampshire this weekend.
“Hopefully, (Merrimack) will lose a few points and we’ll win our games,” said Nyquist.
Nyquist is playing the best hockey of his career these days, although he admitted he was disappointed in himself that he didn’t put the puck in the open net against UNH.
He could have signed with Detroit in the offseason but chose to come back. He doesn’t regret his decision even though it has certainly been a trying year for a team that was picked to finish second in the conference.
“I love this team. I love the guys. We’re a big family,” said Nyquist Monday. “I still believe this team can go far. There’s no doubt in my mind as long as we get a few bounces.”
“We’ve fought through injuries and young goaltending, and we’re absolutely determined to rise up in the end,” said Whitehead. “I know the odds
are against us, but we’re excited about this challenge. This team can still do something special, but we’ll have to take a different road to get there.”