At around 10:00 on the night of Jan. 28, 2012, we will know exactly what the stretch run for the University of Maine’s men’s hockey team will be comprised of.
We will know whether the Black Bears will still be in the hunt for third or fourth place or looking at fifth-through-ninth.
Vermont’s last-place Catamounts, with just three points in 11 league games, appear doomed unless they can make a dramatic turnaround.
So what have we learned about this 6-7-2 Maine team (5-6-1 in Hockey East) so far?
The Black Bears are a middle-of-the-pack team.
They are overmatched against Boston College and were clearly inferior to Boston University. However, Boston University has since lost one of the nation’s leading goal scorers, Corey Trivino, who was arrested for an alleged sexual assault, along with first-round NHL draft choice and Hockey East Rookie of the Year Charlie Coyle, who left school to concentrate solely on hockey.
Maine can compete with the other seven teams in the league, including Merrimack, and it should be more competitive with BU now.
Maine has one of the nation’s premier lines in seniors Spencer Abbott and Brian Flynn and junior Joey Diamond. Each of them is ranked in the top 10 in the nation in at least one offensive category.
They have accounted for 25 of Maine’s 46 goals and 17 of the 28 even-strength goals.
But that means Maine has received only 11 even-strength goals from the rest of the team.
That isn’t good enough if the Bears have any aspirations of finishing in the top four in Hockey East.
At the root of the problem is Maine’s secondary recruiting.
The coaching staff has recruited diligently and the program wouldn’t be mired in its current dilemma, with no NCAA Tournament appearances in four years, if players who verbally committed had honored their commitment.
But when they lost players to Major Junior Hockey League teams, such as first-round NHL draft pick and 34-goal scorer Austin Watson (Peterborough, Ontario Hockey League last year), Darcy Ashley (39 points for Halifax in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) and defenseman Kevin Gagne (32 points for Saint John, QMJHL), they weren’t able to secure players with comparable skill sets to supply supplemental scoring.
It is a problem all college programs face these days.
The current members of the freshman and sophomore classes have combined for nine goals, 14 assists and 23 points in 183 career games. That is the worst total in Hockey East, 66 points fewer than the next lowest total produced by Boston College’s freshmen and sophomores (38-51-89 in 203 games). Maine’s freshmen and sophomores are averaging .126 points per game. Vermont is the next-lowest in that category, averaging .307 points-per-game from its freshmen and sophomores.
That’s not to say the freshmen and sophomores aren’t valuable in other ways. They work hard and are resourceful third and fourth liners.
They just aren’t yet point-producers.
And goaltender Scott Darling’s second-half collapses and off-ice issues that resulted in his leaving after the 2009-2010 season have been problematic.
Freshmen Dan Sullivan and Martin Ouellette and sophomore Shawn Sirman struggled with consistency a year ago and Sirman left the program.
To his credit, Sullivan has provided the Black Bears with better goaltending this season. His 3.11 goals-against average and .894 save percentage are misleading. He has played better than his stats reveal.
Maine is still holding out hope Ouellette can economize his movement and become a steady stand-up goalie who it can trust to spell Sullivan or earn equal playing time.
Head coach Tim Whitehead’s Black Bears have a slim margin of error.
They will need Sullivan and-or Ouellete to provide them with consistently good goaltending.
Then they must find some supplemental scoring and will have to stay out of the penalty box.
The second line comprised of juniors Kyle Beattie, Adam Shemansky and Matt Mangene has to start scoring. They have five even-strength goals between them.
Sophomore Mark Anthoine has been a pleasant surprise with four goals, all on the power play, and the freshman class, highlighted by center Stu Higgins, shows promise.
Senior Theo Andersson (0 points) and junior Klas Leidermark (2 goals, 1 assist) have been useful on the penalty kill but if they aren’t able to chip in offensively, Whitehead will have to decide whether their penalty-killing and defensive capabilities are enough to keep them in the lineup ahead of possible point-producing freshmen Andrew Cerretani, Connor Leen and John Parker.
The defense corps has been respectable if unspectacular with the improvement in senior Ryan Hegarty and junior Nick Pryor serving as important developments. But when they moved speedy one-man breakout Mangene up front, it has become more important that the forwards continue to back-check tenaciously with intelligence and purpose to help out the defense.
The Bears’ eight-game January schedule includes a home game with Vermont, the Fenway Park game against New Hampshire and a brutal stretch which sees them sandwich visits to Merrimack and Boston University for two-game series around a two-game home set with BC.
The top line and the nation’s seventh-best power play should be enough to keep Maine out of ninth place. But fourth is a definite stretch.