ORONO — Will O’Neill has always produced points.
The University of Maine defenseman has 19 goals and 80 assists in 140 games. He is only one point shy of reaching the 100-point plateau, a milestone reached by only six other Black Bears.
O’Neill will have a chance for point No. 100 at 7:30 p.m. Saturday when Maine faces defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth in its NCAA tournament Northeast Regional at the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass.
UMaine’s impressive list of 100-point scorers includes the late Andre Aubut (135), Keith Carney (126), Jack Capuano (121), David Cullen (117), Peter Metcalf (108) and Chris Imes (105).
O’Neill is coming off a weekend in which he broke a 33-game goal-scoring drought with two goals in a 5-3 Hockey East semifinal win over Boston University. His father, Bill, helped lead BU to an NCAA championship in 1978.
He has registered three goals and 28 assists in 39 games this season and is tied for second in the country in assists among defensemen. O’Neill’s 0.79 points per game is 10th among the nation’s blue-liners.
Over the past two seasons, he has made dramatic strides defensively.
“He has been a terrific player for Maine, no question about it,” said BU coach Jack Parker, who coached O’Neill’s father. “He has always been great offensively but he has become a much better defensive defenseman.”
“He has really solidified his spot as a two-way defenseman the last two years,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “He’s one of our top penalty-killers and he is always out there in the first and last minute of games. I’ve been very impressed with his determination to keep getting better.
“He has really improved his game in every way, not just defensively,” added Whitehead. “His numbers at Maine are higher than his numbers in junior hockey.”
O’Neill had 24 points in 58 games for the Omaha Lancers in his last season in the United States Hockey League (0.41 ppg) while his 99 points in 140 games at Maine average out to 0.71 ppg.
“As you get older, you learn you have to take care of both ends of the ice. Taking care of your own end has to be your staple. Everything else is a bonus,” said O’Neill, who leads the team with 29 blocked shots.
“I’ve taken more pride in my defense. My work ethic [in defensive aspects] had to get better and it has,” said O’Neill. “My skating and cardio have improved thanks to my work over the summer so I’ve been able to play more minutes and tighten up defensively.”
He said a critical ingredient in his defensive improvement has been making better reads at the offensive blue line so he doesn’t give up as many rushes.
He will pinch to try to keep the puck in the offensive zone if he has a good chance to be successful. If not, he will back off and “play the rush. You have to hold as tight a gap as you can.”
He is pleased that he has been utilized to kill penalties like he was two years ago.
“That’s been great. Just being involved in a penalty kill feels great. You come back to the bench and everyone is fired up,” said O’Neill. “You block a shot and feel good about it. I’ll take as many minutes as I can.”
O’Neill is a co-captain along with Brian Flynn and he said he takes his leadership role seriously.
“There’s a lot of responsibility but I like that,” said O’Neill. “You’ve got to be honest with yourself. You have to be one of the hardest workers on the team. You can’t cut corners. You have to do things right. If you don’t, nobody is going to.”
“He’s a great leader,” said senior defenseman Ryan Hegarty. “He knows when to say the right things. He knows how to get guys fired up. And he leads by example.”
Hegarty also said O’Neill has improved tremendously on the defensive side.
“He really worked hard in the off-season and it’s showing,” said Hegarty. “He’s been playing good minutes and has been playing against the other teams’ top lines.”
Whitehead said O’Neill has been an effective leader.
“He’s an uplifting person. He always has a smile on his face. You would never know that by watching how fierce a competitor he is on the ice,” said Whitehead.
O’Neill has been a catalyst manning the point on the nation’s second-best power play as he has a goal and 18 assists.
“He is one of the best power-play guys I’ve seen in the league in a long time,” said Boston College coach Jerry York. “He has had a banner career.”
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound native of Salem, Mass., not only helped the Bears reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in his career, his father earned his 500th career coaching win at Salem State College. And his longtime girlfriend, UMaine field hockey forward Kelly Newton, was named a third-team All-American for the second straight year.
O’Neill, a seventh-round draft choice of the Atlanta Thrashers (now the Winnipeg Jets), said he is looking forward to playing in his first NCAA tournament after three years of disappointment.
“Our senior class is tight-knit. It’s a big deal. We’re thrilled and excited,” said O’Neill.
CORRECTION: A photo caption with this story has been corrected. Matt Mangene should have been listed as one of the University of Maine players celebrating an empty-net goal, not Will O’Neill.