ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine men’s hockey team has been among the highest scoring teams in the country for most of the season thanks to its prolific top line of Brian Flynn between Spencer Abbott and Joey Diamond and its potent power play which has the second-best efficiency percentage among the 58 Division I schools.
The Black Bears were always in the bottom half of the defensive statistics.
But, lately, it has been a different story.
Maine has allowed one goal or less in four of its last five games and that includes the 1-0 win over New Hampshire that clinched the fourth seed and home ice for the best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinals and the two 2-1 victories over Merrimack in the quarterfinals that will send the Black Bears to the TD Garden in Boston for Friday’s 8 p.m. semifinal against Boston University.
“This is the kind of team we want to fashion ourselves after,” said senior left wing Abbott. “We want to be a defensive team that can create offense off our defense. We’ve shown that lately and it has been key for us.”
The defensive surge is a good sign, according to senior defenseman Ryan Hegarty.
“I’d much rather win with defense because defense wins championships,” Hegarty said. “Offense gets you places but, when it comes down to it, [goalie Dan Sullivan] has been playing great. He has been an absolute force behind us.”
Hegarty said the forwards have been doing a “great job” back-checking and helping out in the defensive zone.
“That has allowed us to be more aggressive defensively. They’ve been covering for us. You have to give a lot of credit to them,” Hegarty explained.
“We [the defensemen] have been trying to play shutdown and really locking down the [defensive] zone and we’ve also been trying to get the puck to our forwards so they can attack the other way with speed,” said senior defenseman Will O’Neill. “Our break-outs have been pretty good and, in the [defensive] zone, we’ve been playing tough and aggressive and sound in front of our net.”
Following Friday night’s 2-1 win over Merrimack, the Bears found themselves on the back foot and in the penalty box on Saturday night as the Warriors got under the skin of Maine’s top players in their 5-2 win over Maine.
The result was a Hockey East record 50 penalties for 184 penalty minutes.
But the Black Bears learned a valuable lesson about discipline and allowed the Warriors just one power play in the victory on Sunday while earning six themselves.
“They had a game strategy and executed it,” said junior right wing Diamond, who was assessed 22 penalty minutes. “Credit to them. They got our top guys off the ice. They did a great job of it. But we knew if our top guys stayed on the ice and we stayed disciplined, we’d have a good shot at winning the game.”
“We didn’t expect it,” said Abbott, who picked up 18 penalty minutes after entering the game with 14 for the entire season. “They wanted to get under our skin and they did it. It worked for them. But we learned from those mistakes.”
Maine played one of its most physical games of the year from start to finish on Sunday but the Bears didn’t allow themselves to get goaded into penalties.
“I remember seeing Abbott throw his weight around early in the game and that got everybody on the team going,” said Hegarty. “If he can throw his weight around, everyone can do it.”
O’Neill said Saturday’s game was too slow.
“There was much more flow on Sunday. We wanted to come out and show it wasn’t our best game on Saturday,” he said. “We wanted to play a hard, physical game but stay out of the penalty box. We really came at them. We showed the way right out of the gate.”
Maine is 19-6-2 following its 3-6-1 start and hasn’t lost two consecutive games on the same weekend during that stretch.
“Ever since our 3-6-1 start and our team meeting [after being swept at home by UMass Lowell], we have been buckling down every game,” said Abbott. “We’ve tried to perform at our best every game. [19-6-2] is a pretty solid record. Tons of good teams here maybe haven’t done that well.
“We’re a good hockey team right now. We’re playing with confidence,” added Abbott.
Maine’s NCAA aspirations optimistic
Maine appears to be in good position to earn its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2006-2007.
The Black Bears are currently 10th in the Pairwise Rankings that mimic the NCAA Tournament selection process.
Seven of the nine teams ahead of them are still alive in their conference tournaments. Hockey East rival UMass Lowell (9th in the Pairwise) and CCHA member Ferris State (tied for 6th) have been ousted.
A win over Boston University in the Hockey East semis would certainly lock down a spot for Maine.
The five conference champions earn automatic berths and there are 11 at-large teams chosen.
The WCHA teams (Michigan Tech-Denver, St. Cloud State-North Dakota) that have to play quarterfinal games all trail Maine in the Pairwise. The winners play Minnesota (7th in the Pairwise) and Minnesota-Duluth (3rd) in the semis.
Western Michigan and Bowling Green are the CCHA semifinalists who trail Maine. Western Michigan faces Miami (4th, tied) and Bowling Green meets Michigan (2nd) in the semis.
Union (tied for 6th) is the only ECAC semifinalist ahead of Maine in the Pairwise.
All of the Atlantic Hockey semifinalists trail Maine.