ORONO — The importance of special teams play is magnified in the playoffs.
A power-play goal or an important penalty kill can mean the difference between extending your season or having it come to a premature end.
The University of Maine men’s hockey team will try to develop some consistency on its special teams beginning Friday night when the Black Bears take on the youthful University of Massachusetts Lowell River Hawks at Tsongas Arena.
The teams will play a two-game set, Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 7:30.
Maine’s penalty-killing had been vastly improved as it had killed off off 47 of 52 until a current four-game stretch in which it has allowed seven power-play goals on 18 chances.
The power play had scored in eight straight games (9-for-40) and, after an 0-for-7 showing in a 1-1 tie with Boston University, erupted for three goals on four chances in a 6-3 loss to New Hampshire on Feb. 4.
However, Maine is just 1-for-18 over its last three games.
Vermont entered last weekend’s series ranked 54th among 58 teams on the power play and went 5-for-13 against Maine. Maine went 1-for-16 against a penalty killing unit ranked 52nd in the country.
“Consistency has been our problem across the board this season,” said Maine junior defenseman Will O’Neill. “If we had been consistent, we wouldn’t be in fifth place (in Hockey East) and tied for 19th in the PairWise Rankings (that emulate the NCAA tournament selection criteria). We have to strive to be as consistent as we can be.”
“We had such a good power play last year but we just haven’t been able to put it together this year,” said senior center Robby Dee. “I don’t know what (the problem) is. Hopefully, we’ll come through down the stretch.”
“We have always prided ourselves on having good special teams and it’s frustrating we haven’t been more consistent on the power play or penalty kill,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead.
Maine had the nation’s best power play a year ago (27.7 percent) but the Bears are now 32nd at 17.2 percent. The penalty-killing percentage is about the same, 81 percent compared to 80.1 percent a year ago. Maine is tied for 36th on the penalty kill.
Whitehead said where Maine must get better is in the imaginary third circle (between the faceoff circles) at both ends of the ice.
His players concurred.
“We’ve got to try to get more guys to the net front on the power play. We need more traffic and more dirty goals. They don’t have to be pretty. We’ve been passing the puck around and looking for the pretty play too much. We need to just get the puck to the net,” said senior defenseman Jeff Dimmen. “On the penalty kill, we have to box out and help our goalies out more.
“We’ve been messing up our goalies because we’ve given our opponents chances from within that circle,” said O’Neill. “It’s not our goalies’ faults. We have to clear guys out in front and the weak-side forward has to come back (down low) to help out.”
Junior left wing Brian Flynn said the Bears have to improve the special teams play.
“You aren’t going to go far in the playoffs if you have poor special teams,” said Flynn. “Special teams are a huge part of the game. That’s where a lot of goals come from.”
UMass Lowell is 28th on the power play (17.9 percent) and 57th on the penalty kill (74.3 percent).
But Maine expects a battle with the last-place team in the league.
“They’ve gained a lot more experience since we last played them (8-2 win on Oct. 8),” said Dee.