ORONO — Ryan Hegarty said the last time he was a forward he was “5 years old.”
He is still a defenseman but Hegarty has been moved to the net front on the University of Maine hockey team’s power play and he responded with the game-tying goal in the third period of Saturday’s 3-3 overtime tie at North Dakota.
He tipped Spencer Abbott’s pass from the point between goalie Aaron Dell’s legs with 7:42 remaining.
Maine coach Tim Whitehead wanted to put a big body at the net front since none of the forwards who have played so far this season are over 190 pounds.
Hegarty, a senior who puts 210 pounds on his 6-foot frame, made his debut on the second power-play unit in a 6-3 win over Northeastern and remained with the second unit in a 3-1 loss to North Dakota on Friday night.
Joey Diamond, who handles the same role on the first unit, was benched for taking penalties in the North Dakota loss so Hegarty was elevated to the first unit and responded with his first goal of the season and third of his 87-game career.
Hegarty’s goal was no fluke.
He has been working after practice on tip-ins for the last two weeks.
“He’s always out there tipping pucks, trying to get the hang of it,” said senior defenseman and co-captain Will O’Neill. “He wants to contribute in that way and he did a great job tipping Abbott’s shot.”
Whitehead added, “He has worked extremely hard on deflections and screening the goalie and it paid off. I’m happy for him.”
Hegarty has been working with Whitehead and Diamond.
“Joey’s always in front of the net,” said Hegarty. “I’ve been asking the goalies (Dan Sullivan, Martin Ouellette and Josh Seeley) where to be and where to have my stick and it paid off.”
But Hegarty said the most important aspect of his job is “winning loose pucks.
“If you don’t win loose pucks, you don’t have a chance to get in front. It’s a two-step plan: you get the puck to the point and you get in front and make it really agitating for their defensemen and goalie,” said Hegarty.
“He’s strong and he wins a lot of loose pucks in the corners for us,” said Maine senior left wing-center and assistant captain Brian Flynn.
Hegarty is enjoying his new spot on the power play.
“It’s a great way to expand my role,” said Hegarty, a fourth-round draft choice of Anaheim.
In addition to taking a regular shift on defense, Hegarty has evolved into an “elite” penalty-killer, Whitehead said. He will often be used when the team is facing a two-man disadvantage.
“He’s great on the penalty kill. He plays a ton of minutes. He’s pretty strong back there,” said Flynn.
“It’s great having him out there. Everything is coming around for him,” said O’Neill. “He’s a big body, he’s sound defensively and he has killed penalties for a few years now. He doesn’t get much publicity. He goes unnoticed but he doesn’t go unnoticed in our locker room. He’s a competitor who loves being out there and we love having him out there. He’s a rock.”
Hegarty, from Arlington, Mass., and a product of the United States National Team Development Program, has had his ups and downs during his career and is looking to be more consistent this season.
“I’ve had flashes of good and bad and I’m working to get the bad out of my game,” said Hegarty, who has 13 assists to go with his three career goals. “Everyone wants a consistent, reliable defenseman. And I want to be an all-situation defenseman.”
He was frustrated that Maine only gained a tie in two games at North Dakota despite playing very well.
But he said, “I was really encouraged. I love the way this team plays. If we can keep playing like that all season long, we’ll be in a great spot at the end of the year.”
BEARS EYEING OFF WEEKEND
Maine, now 1-2-1, has a rare weekend off before hosting upstart 2-0 Providence, under first-year coach and former Old Town High School and University of Maine assistant Nate Leaman, on Oct. 28-29.
It wasn’t originally going to be a free weekend but when the Black Bears and University of New Hampshire landed their Jan. 7 game at Fenway Park in Boston, Whitehead said they had to juggle the schedule.
“It was worth it,” said Whitehead who cancelled a two-game home set with Nebraska-Omaha.
Whitehead said they will practice hard over the next two weeks and they will receive an extra day of weight training which he feels will be valuable especially considering he has a small team.
“It’s a great time to put more meat on our bones and work on our conditioning,” said O’Neill. “We’ve got some smaller guys. Other teams won’t have this weekend off so we can get into even better shape and try to get ahead of teams in conditioning.”
Flynn said it may be good to get more time in the gym and let players heal a little more.
Maine usually has weight training on Mondays and Wednesdays but will add a Friday session this week.