Analysis

Goaltending, scoring are question marks for Black Bears

Posted Oct. 06, 2011, at 6:22 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 06, 2011, at 10:20 p.m.
Maine goalie Dan Sullivan makes a pad save in the second period against the University of New Brunswick Sunday at Alfond Arena in Orono. Maine will need improved goaltending this season if it expects to return to the NCAA Tournament.
Michael C. York/BDN
Maine goalie Dan Sullivan makes a pad save in the second period against the University of New Brunswick Sunday at Alfond Arena in Orono. Maine will need improved goaltending this season if it expects to return to the NCAA Tournament.

The natives are restless as well they should be.

The University of Maine’s men’s hockey team has missed the NCAA Tournament the last four seasons after a string of nine consecutive appearances, including six Frozen Fours and three championship game appearances.

The four-year drought is the longest since the program’s first seven years in Division I after moving up from Division II. Maine’s first season in Division I was 1979-80.

In the last four seasons, Maine has gone a combined 7-26-6 against the league’s three other most successful programs: Boston College, New Hampshire and Boston University.

Maine is no longer mentioned in the same breath with the other three.

The Black Bears used to make an annual pilgrimage to the TD Bank Garden for the Hockey East semifinals and finals but they have made only one such trip over the last four seasons.

Can this be the season in which the Black Bears end their NCAA Tournament drought and trigger a resurgence?

After all, they were picked to finish fourth in Hockey East in the coaches’ preseason poll and that usually means a legitimate chance to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

This team could make the NCAA Tournament.

Entering the 2010-2011 season, the question mark was goaltending. Could a sophomore (Shawn Sirman) and two freshmen (Dan Sullivan and Martin Ouellette) supply them with the consistent goaltending needed to earn an NCAA Tournament spot?

No, although the goalies certainly weren’t solely to blame. An inability to hold leads late; a failure to finish games by scoring insurance goals and defensive miscues proved costly, also.

Their .884 save percentage ranked 57th out of 58 teams in Division I.

Sirman was released from the program so Sullivan and Ouellette will be the goalies with Josh Seeley backing them up.

Sullivan and Ouellette should be improved and head coach Tim Whitehead and his players have noticed their improvement during the preseason.

Whitehead said they are far ahead of where they were at this time last season.

Sullivan set the school’s consecutive shutout minutes record a year ago ( 202:48) and Ouellette also showed some real signs of promise.

Again, it all boils down to consistency and making the game-changing save. Both are capable and the Bears have to hope at least one of them emerges as a dependable goalie.

Each was victimized by soft goals from time to time and must limit them because they deflate a team.

This team won’t be as potent offensively so expect a lot of low-scoring games where a soft goal could mean the difference between winning and losing.

The defense corps lost three seniors who logged a lot of minutes in Jeff Dimmen, Josh Van Dyk and Mike Banwell. There also saw a lot of duty in the last minutes of close games.

The decision to move speedy junior Matt Mangene from forward to defense is a wise one.

That gives Maine a one-man breakout. Mangene has the ability to skate away from forecheckers so that should mean less time in the defensive zone.

He also gives Maine an offensive threat who can both rush the puck or jump into the play as a trailer.

Senior co-captain Will O’Neill is one of the nation’s best offensive defensemen and should have a very good year if he can stay healthy. He had four goals and 17 assists in 33 games last year. He is exceptional on the power play. He does need to be better in the defensive zone.

Senior Ryan Hegarty and junior Mark Nemec will be asked to elevate their roles this season and both are capable of doing so and being steady, reliable defensemen. Hegarty needs to limit his turnovers and Nemec must become a little more consistent. Both could benefit by being more physical. Both are fearless shot-blockers and effective penalty-killers.

Junior assistant captain Mike Cornell and sophomore Brice O’Connor are hard-nosed defensemen who will be two of the leaders in the hits department. They supply the team with a physical presence. They must make smart, safe decisions with the puck and be precise with their angles and gaps. Both also have some offensive abilities.

Billy Norman is a quick undersized defenseman with an offensive flair and fellow freshman Jacob Rutt of Scarborough is a big, physical blue-liner who also possesses a good shot. Norman needs to improve his strength and Rutt needs to work on his skating.

Maine took some heavy losses up front in three-time leading scorer and former Hobey Baker Award finalist and All-American Gustav Nyquist (18 goals, 33 assists) and their top two centers in Tanner House (10 & 25) and Robby Dee (13 & 22).

Goal scoring could be an issue.

Whitehead had his top three returning scorers on a line together in their 7-3 exhibition win over New Brunswick and they clicked impressively.

Senior assistant captain Spencer Abbott (17 & 23) is the left wing; senior co-captain Brian Flynn (20 & 16) is making the transition from left wing to center and junior Joey Diamond (11 & 10) is the right wing. The creative Abbott and sniper Flynn are two of the league’s best forwards and Diamond is one of the best corner men around.

However, if they stay together, they will have to deal with some top-notch checking lines.

That means it will be vital for Maine to receive supplemental scoring from returnees like senior Theo Andersson ( 1 & 3), juniors Kyle Beattie (6 & 7), Adam Shemansky (2 & 3) and Klas Leidermark (1 & 1) and sophomores Mark Anthoine (1 & 3), Jon Swavely (1 & 1) and Carlos Amestoy (no points).

Shemansky and Leidermark played in just 19 and 18 games, respectively, due to injury but both are healthy now. Junior Nick Pryor played in just five games last year due to injury and has been moved from defense to forward. He could also be moved back if necessary.

Maine’s five freshmen forwards can all skate and put up points. The quintet is capable of producing at least 20 goals between them which will be needed to help fill the void left by the departures. Connor Leen, Andrew Cerretani, Stu Higgins, John Parker and Pietro Antonelli could all see considerable ice time this season.

Whitehead won’t hesitate to replace an under-achieving veteran with a freshman.

Last year’s freshmen combined for just two goals and seven assists.

The 200-pound Antonelli is the only forward on the team who weighs more than 190 pounds so the forwards will have to compensate with their speed, puck movement and tenacity.

The power play should be potent especially if Whitehead keeps Abbott, O’Neill, Shemansky, Flynn and Diamond on the top unit. Whitehead will have to find a second unit.

There are some penalty-killers back so Maine should be respectable in that area.

Maine went 17-12-7 last year and finished fifth in Hockey East with a 14-8-5 record before being swept by Merrimack in the league quarterfinals.

Maine hosts Merrimack Friday night at 7 to open the season.

The Alfond Arena has undergone $4.85 million in renovations and now it is important for the product on the ice to match the improvements.

Even though Whitehead is in the first year of his three-year contract extension, athletic director Steve Abbott has shown he isn’t afraid to fire a coach when he canned women’s basketball coach and former Black Bear All-American guard Cindy Blodgett.

The Alfond Arena faithful are getting impatient and want the Bears to return to prominence.

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