ORONO, Maine — When accessing the University of Maine men’s hockey team’s January schedule, a prediction of 4-4 could have been considered a bit optimistic.
There was a home game with Vermont, the Frozen Fenway date with archrival New Hampshire and then three two-game series against teams ranked in the top seven in the nation, with four of those being on the road.
But the Black Bears not only survived the month, they flourished to the tune of a 6-1-1 record.
That has catapulted them to third in the Hockey East standings and tied for 10th in the Pairwise Rankings with Miami. The Pairwise Rankings mimic the NCAA Tournament Selection process.
In those six wins, the Black Bears have received game-winning goals from six different scorers.
During Maine’s current five-game unbeaten streak (4-0-1), which includes back-to-back sweeps over Boston College and Boston University, ranked third and second in the nation when Maine played them, sophomore goalie Dan Sullivan has posted an impressive .931 save percentage (162 saves on 174 shots).
“This says a lot about how far our team has come since that Lowell weekend, that was the lowest part of the season,” said junior left wing Adam Shemansky, referring to the 5-3, 4-3 home losses to UMass Lowell on Nov. 11-12.
A players-only meeting followed that series and Maine has gone 11-2-2 ever since.
“Everybody came back really hungry after Christmas. We had that one tough game at Merrimack [6-2 loss] but we bounced back and if we can play with a team like that, we can play with anyone,” said Shemansky.
A 2-2 overtime tie at Merrimack the next night jump-started the current 4-0-1 stretch.
“Everyone is contributing in their own way and we’re a good team. The key word is ‘team,’” added Shemansky, whose three goals in the last four games signifies another recent development: more secondary scoring to take the pressure off the high-powered top line of Brian Flynn between Spencer Abbott and Joey Diamond.
In the five-game unbeaten streak, the Flynn line has scored six goals while the other three lines and defense corps have teamed up for 14.
“We know the top line is going to be great even if they don’t score,” Shemansky said. “They’re going to get chances and be a positive force on the game. They always take the other team’s top players off the ice so the rest of us have been able to come through against the other team’s lesser lines.”
Co-captain Flynn said the secondary scoring has been important, “especially on the road. You need scoring depth. You aren’t going to win with just a couple of guys scoring.”
The team defense has also buckled down in front of Sullivan.
In the last five games, Maine has allowed just 2.4 goals per game against teams (Merrimack, BC, BU) that are averaging a combined 3.27 goals per game.
“We haven’t been giving up too many scoring chances and when we do, [Sullivan] is playing awesome,” said Flynn. “He has been solid. He has been really consistent. He gives us a chance to win every game even if we aren’t playing our best.”
“He has been huge,” said Shemansky. “He gives you confidence. You know if you make a mistake, he’s capable of bailing you out. He’s a calming presence.”
Sullivan said his teammates have made his job easier.
“I think I’ve done a pretty good job stopping the first shot but the guys have done a tremendous job getting back and limiting the second and third chances,” said Sullivan. “They’ve stayed disciplined and have outworked teams.”
The team is also playing with confidence, according to junior defenseman and assistant captain Mike Cornell.
“My dad [Alan] asked me how I felt after the Friday night game at BU and I told him we’re finally at the stage where we’re happy about the win but we truly believe we can get four points out of the weekend,” said Cornell. “The culture in the locker room has changed a little bit. The guys have started to believe in each other and are buying into what coach [Tim Whitehead] is saying. We’ve been sticking to the game plan.”
Cornell said the players know they have to outwork teams to be successful.
“We may not have high-end players like BC and BU but we can control our work ethic and if [outworking teams] is a key to our success, then that’s what we have to do,” said Cornell.
“We know how we have to play to win hockey games,” said Flynn.
Maine, now 14-8-3 overall and 11-7-2 in Hockey East, hosts Alabama-Huntsville, the only independent among the 58 Division I teams, on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Parker, linemates chipping in
One of the players supplying secondary scoring of late is speedy freshman right wing John Parker, who has three goals and an assist in his last six games.
He is on a line with sophomore center Jon Swavely and freshman left wing Connor Leen.
That line was reunited for the last five games and has combined for three goals and three assists. Leen had the game-winner in the 7-4 win over BC.
“Our line is going [well] right now. [Swavely and Leen] are playing great. Leen had five shots on goal [against BU on Saturday]. That really helped us offensively. We’re just getting to the net, the pucks are there and we’re trying to put them home,” said Parker. “We’re getting used to each other, where each other is going to put the puck and where each other is going to be on the ice. It’s good.”