ORONO — University of Maine men’s hockey team Tim Whitehead said he has been “really pleased” with the play of his defense corps so far this season.
But the Black Bear blue-liners will get a good gauge for exactly how far they’re progressed this weekend when they travel to Boston College and New Hampshire for their first two Hockey East road games.
The high-powered Eagles are the nation’s top-ranked team while UNH has rebounded after a slow start to post two wins and a tie in its last three games.
Maine has been using five defensemen on a regular basis in senior co-captain Will O’Neill, senior Ryan Hegarty and juniors Mark Nemec, Matt Mangene and Nick Pryor. Junior assistant captain Mike Cornell has played in four of the six games with sophomore Brice O’Connor playing the other two games.
“As a whole, I think we’ve done a good job thus far,” said Nemec.
“Their defense is getting better and better. They’ve had some real good games,” said BC coach Jerry York who considers Maine a “traditional rival.”
Maine has held its opponents to three goals or less in five of its six games but that could be in jeopardy this weekend.
“Both teams have a lot of skilled players,” said Nemec. “In practice all week we’ve been working on defensive zone awareness. That’s going to be critical. They’re going to try to work the puck low and cycle it. As long as we’re covering our men and we have our heads on a swivel with a good awareness of what they’re trying to do, we’ll be able to limit their chances.”
The team has been working a lot on dealing with rushes, Hegarty said.
“Both teams like to generate odd-man rushes (three-on-twos, two-on-ones) and score on the rush,” he said. “It’s good timing because both teams like to hit the man on the weak side (furthest from the puck). We have to watch for guys sneaking back door (both nights).”
Maine must keep things simple, O’Neill said.
“We need to get pucks out of our zone and we need to communicate. That will really help us,” he said.
Hegarty and O’Neill said the Black Bear defensemen will have to keep a tight gap between themselves and their own forwards to prevent BC and UNH’s forwards from generating a lot of speed through the neutral zone.
“Quite frankly, we won’t be able to catch up to some of their guys if we’re skating backwards and they’re skating full speed,” said Hegarty. “It’s going to be key for us to follow up the play and stay with it (to tighten up the gaps).”
Nemec added, “We have to pressure them in the neutral zone and not give up the red line (by fading back). As long as we do that and our forwards get back to help us out, we should be all right.”
The Bears will stress staying between the faceoff dots when they play on the big sheet at the Whittemore Center.
“We can’t overextend ourselves and get lost outside the dots,” said Hegarty.
The players know it will be a huge challenge but they want to prove that they can beat good teams on the road. Maine is 0-15-1 in its last 16 games at the two rinks.
“They are real good teams but we feel we’re a good team, too, and we want to do some things this year,” said Hegarty. “To get points at BC and New Hampshire would be huge for us.”