The 2010-2011 University of Maine men’s hockey team will go down as one of the most disappointing in the 34-year history of the program.
The Black Bears, who returned 11 of their top 12 scorers from a 19-win season and Hockey East championship game appearance, were picked second in the Hockey East preseason poll and seventh in two national polls but wound up fifth in the conference and lost to Merrimack in the league quarterfinals 5-4 and 6-2.
There are a number of reasons Maine probably won’t be going to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year: blown leads late in games, inability to expand leads, defensive breakdowns, and special teams issues.
But the most pronounced problem was goaltending.
Maine, which wound up 17-12-7, finished 57th out of 58 Division I schools in save percentage at .884.
The four teams that finished ahead of Maine in the Hockey East standings (Boston College, New Hampshire, Boston University and Merrimack) had a cumulative save percentage of .918 although their goalies were juniors or seniors.
Maine’s .889 save percentage over the last three seasons ranks 54th.
Head coach Tim Whitehead and his coaching staff knew they were going to be inexperienced in goal after oft-suspended sophomore Scott Darling left.
Sophomore Shawn Sirman (4-2-3, 2.77 goals-against average, .894 save percentage) and freshmen Dan Sullivan (10-7-2, 2.73, .890) and Martin Ouellette (3-3-2, 3.18, .862) certainly had their bright moments.
Sirman beat North Dakota and BC, the nation’s top two teams; Ouellette shut out Providence and Sullivan beat North Dakota and set the school record for consecutive scoreless minutes (202:49).
But they were victimized by soft goals and couldn’t supply the consistent goaltending that Maine needed. Statistics reveal regression rather than improvement.
In Maine’s first 18 games, they had a combined save percentage of .901. Over the second 18 games, their save percentage was .876.
Their save percentage in Maine’s eight road games (0-7-1) against the league’s top four teams was a dreary .828.
That causes an area of uncertainty as to whether they’re getting the necessary coaching; if they’re going to turn out to be recruiting mistakes or if some of their positive play will lead to more improvement and eventually provide Maine with consistently good goaltending.
Time will tell.
The Maine players will have to digest the fact that in seven of their losses and ties, they blew third-period leads.
They wasted 3-1 leads in costly 4-3 home losses to New Hampshire and BU.
They can’t blame it all on goaltending.
They need to go for the jugular in that scenario and put teams away like Merrimack did on Saturday night.
The power play slumped to 19.4 percent (20th nationally) after leading the country a year ago (27.7 percent). Nine power-play players returned but two of them, defensemen Will O’Neill and Jeff Dimmen were sidelined by injury for eight and seven games, respectively.
There’s no question injuries played a role into the team’s demise.
None of the top four teams sustained as many injuries to key personnel as Maine. O’Neill and Dimmen were the second highest scoring defense tandem in the country a year ago with 61 combined points. Sullivan missed seven games; center Klas Leidermark and winger Adam Shemansky missed 18 and 17, respectively.
But that’s part of the game and Maine needed to develop more depth.
Dynamic scoring leader Gustav Nyquist (18 goals, 33 assists) said Saturday night that he still felt his team “could have done some real damage” in the NCAA Tournament if it had made it.
Maine had five wins over North Dakota, Merrimack and BC, all at home and they are a combined 80-23-8.
But Maine’s chances of getting in are minuscule.
Maine will have to replace five classy seniors who created a positive environment, provided strong leadership and handled adversity well.
Junior Nyquist is likely to sign with Detroit and he will be sorely missed along with the five seniors: centers Tanner House (10 & 25) and Robby Dee (13 & 22) and defensemen Josh Van Dyk (3 & 15), Dimmen (7 & 9) and Mike Banwell (0 & 3).
Nyquist has 143 career points, House had 109, Dee had 74, Dimmen had 66, Van Dyk had 44 and Banwell had 18.
Maine averaged 3.39 goals per game (16th) and allowed 2.92 (33rd). Their improved penalty killing was at 83.4 percent (tied for 19th).
The outlook for 2011-2012 will depend upon whether junior free agent snipers Spencer Abbott (17 & 23) and Brian Flynn (20 & 16) sign pro contracts and if Atlanta draft choice O’Neill (4 & 17) signs with the Thrashers.
Even if they return, Maine would be a definite longshot to finish in the top four in Hockey East.
In the unlikely scenario that Nyquist also returns, they could contend for a top four finish.
Maine will have four proven point-producers and power play unit forwards in Abbott, Flynn, Joey Diamond (11 & 10) and Kyle Beattie (6 & 7). Sophomore Matt Mangene (3 & 7) creates a lot of scoring chances with his speed but has to start burying more of them.
Hard-working freshman linemates Mark Anthoine (1 & 3), Jon Swavely (1 & 1) and Carlos Amestoy could evolve into a line like the impressive Merrimack grinder line of Carter Madsen- Ryan Flanigan-Elliott Sheen that produced seven goals and seven assists in the quarterfinal series.
Theo Andersson (1 & 3), Leidermark (1 & 1) and Kelen Corkum should be useful third- or fourth-liners.
Incoming freshman forwards Connor Leen, Stuart Higgins and Andrew Cerretani could earn immediate playing time. Leen is a speedy goal scorer; Higgins is a tenacious checker and Cerretani is a hard-nosed playmaker with exceptional hands.
If O’Neill returns, he will quarterback a power-play unit and head up a respectable defense corps. Junior Ryan Hegarty (1 & 3), sophomores Mike Cornell (1 & 7), Mark Nemec (2 & 1) and Nick Pryor (0 & 2 in 5 games due to injury) and freshman Brice O’Connor (0 & 3) should improve noticeably as they take on more prominent roles.
Incoming freshmen Jacob Rutt and Bill Norman could help out immediately. Rutt is a physical presence with a heavy shot and the under-sized Norman is an elite skater and point producer.
There will be other newcomers, also.