ORONO — When a team loses three of its top five scorers and only three of the returning forwards amassed more than 10 points in a 36-game season, that means spots are up for grabs and newcomers will have to contribute.
Four freshmen forwards have fit in nicely for the University of Maine’s men’s hockey team and although they have yet to register a point, their gritty and energetic play has given the team a lift and caught the eyes of the Black Bear veterans.
Andrew Cerretani, John Parker and Connor Leen have played in all four games to date and Stu Higgins has played in the last three.
There has always been an all-freshman line.
Left wing Cerretani, center Parker and right wing Leen played the first two games together against Merrimack and Northeastern and Higgins centered Cerretani and right wing Parker in the last two games at North Dakota. Leen was the right wing on a line with LW Adam Shemansky and C Kyle Beattie for the first North Dakota game and he was with LW Shemansky and C Jon Swavely in the second North Dakota game.
The all-freshman lines have yet to concede a goal and the quartet has generated 16 shots on goal. Leen was on the ice for one goal against with Beattie and Shemansky.
“They’ve actually come in and played great for us,” said senior defenseman Ryan Hegarty. “I’m really impressed with how they’ve come in and given us a real strong fourth line. That’s huge. It’s a big advantage against other teams that don’t have as much depth.”
Hegarty said they don’t play like freshmen.
“They don’t make a lot of mental mistakes like freshmen usually do. And they aren’t afraid to get in there and win battles (for the puck). They aren’t tentative at all,” he said.
“They’ve caught us by surprise. We didn’t know what to expect,” said junior defenseman and assistant captain Mike Cornell. “They came in early (in August), they’ve worked hard and they’ve bought into our systems. They’ve asked a lot of questions and have put in extra work. I’m really happy with them.”
He added that Leen may be the “most naturally talented of the group but they all bring a different element that one of the others doesn’t have.
“Whether you’re on the first line or the fourth line, every minute is important especially on a team like ours. They’re all doing a good job and, hopefully, they’ll keep it up for us,” added Cornell.
The freshmen have been satisfied with their progress and said there has definitely been an adjustment.
“The game is a lot faster and the players are bigger, faster and stronger,” observed Leen.
“It’s going to take some time,” said Parker who, when he’s playing center, has a lot of responsibility in the defensive zone.
“There’s a lot of communication that goes on (in the defensive zone). It’s a huge part of the game,” he added.
“The biggest thing for me is having to make decisions faster,” said Cerretani. “Right when you get the puck, you have to look up. You’ve got to know what you’re doing before you even do it.”
The first period of the first game caught Higgins a little off-guard.
“But I got my legs underneath me and, after that, I got real comfortable. I feel like I improve with every game,” he said.
Cerretani feels they have gotten off to a good start and they all feel they’re progressing.
“We’ve done the little things right. We’re trying to keep it simple and not overcomplicate it by overhandling the puck. We’re trying to make simple passes, get the puck deep (into the (offensive zone) and get it out of our (defensive) zone quickly.”
Higgins said the United States Junior Hockey League prepared him well for college hockey and that improving his strength is at the top of his list.
“Speed is my best attribute and, being a smaller guy (5-foot-8, 160 pounds), if I can maintain my speed and continue increasing my strength, I should be OK,” said Higgins, who has also been used as a penalty-killer. “I’m very happy with how I’ve adjusted and I just want to continue. I’d like to be a mainstay in the lineup. Coach (Tim Whitehead) thinks my best attribute is my defense and I want to continue that and show I have an offensive side as well.”
The other three freshmen also said they’d like to start producing points.
“Being consistent is the big thing,” said Leen who considers being in the lineup a “privilege.”
Cerretani said being an effective back-checker is a must as is being efficient in all three zones.
Maine will host Providence College for a pair of games on Friday and Saturday nights.
When the University of Maine hosts the University of Alabama-Huntsville on Feb. 3-4, that will represent the next-to-last regular season series for the Chargers, who will have their varsity status downgraded to club after this season.
UAH will play its final two games at Miami-Ohio the following weekend before hosting an exhibition series against the U.S. Under-18 national team.
Alabama-Huntsville is the only school among the 58 Division I programs that isn’t in a league.
It is an independent.
Alabama-Huntsville is the lone holdover from College Hockey America that didn’t wind up in another league. It applied for membership in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association after CHA disbanded following the 2009-2010 season but the bid was rejected.
Alabama-Huntsville, the only program south of the Mason-Dixon line, won the last CHA Tournament and lost to eventual Frozen Four semifinalist Miami-Ohio 2-1 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2010.
The Chargers were 4-26-2 as an independent last season and are 0-7-1 this season.