ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine’s hockey team exceeded expectations.
Thanks to the determination and leadership of the six-member senior class and dramatic improvement in a number of players, the Black Bears overcame a 3-6-1 start to go 20-8-2 the rest of the way and earn their first NCAA Tournament appearance since the 2006-2007 season.
An eight-man junior class will become the senior class next season and will look to build on this season’s accomplishments and go deeper into the NCAA Tournament.
Maine was ousted by defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth 5-2 in their Northeast Regional Tournament game Saturday night.
“Our six seniors put us back on the map. They put Maine hockey where it is supposed to be and we’re going to build off it next year,” said junior right wing Matt Mangene.
“The seniors really planted a seed for us this year,” said sophomore goalie Dan Sullivan. “It was an honor to play with all of our seniors. They were great men on and off the ice. They were role models. I think we have a great group of juniors who are going to be very hungry [as seniors] next season.
“I believe we can get back to the NCAA Tournament. We lost a ton of extremely skilled guys last year [and we made it],” added Sullivan.
Maine went 6-4 against rivals Boston College, Boston University and New Hampshire after going 7-26-6 against them the previous 39 games.
The Black Bears lost players who combined for 51 goals and 158 points a year ago.
They will lose players who collaborated for 46 goals and 159 points this season.
But the Black Bears had a little more scoring balance this season and they will return players who scored 87 goals and notched 125 assists, including seven of the 10 players who logged regular minutes on the nation’s second best power play (26.7 percent).
Hobey Baker Award finalist Spencer Abbott, the nation’s leading scorer (21 goals, 41 assists), and linemate Brian Flynn (18 and 30), were both Hockey East first-team selections and the third member of their line, junior Joey Diamond (25 and 22) was a second-team pick.
“I really think they’ll be back in the NCAA Tournament next year,” predicted outgoing senior defenseman and co-captain Will O’Neill. “It’ll be a different type of team because Abbott and Flynn are dynamic. They may not score as many goals but they won’t give up much because of how good [Sullivan] has become and because of the defense corps.
“Nick Pryor has really elevated his game; Mark Nemec, Mike Cornell and Brice O’Connor logged huge minutes and Jake Rutt is going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
“We’ve got a lot to look forward to,” said coach Tim Whitehead who feels next year’s seniors can match the “remarkable leadership” of this year’s seniors.
“If you look at our junior class, Mangene might be the most improved player in the country. You look at Joey Diamond, Pryor, Nemec, Cornell, [Kyle] Beattie, [Adam] Shemansky and Klas [Leidermark] and all of those guys have elevated their games. That’s where the leadership will come from,” said Whitehead.
Goaltending had been a question mark for four years but it should be a strength next year thanks to Sullivan’s dramatic improvement.
He may not have finished in the top 35 in the country in goals-against average (2.59, 36th) or save percentage (.909, 46th) but, more importantly, he had the 11th best winning percentage (22-11-3, .653).
Sullivan, who started the last 32 games, needs to tweak his glove, rebound control and recovery after the initial save. He also intends to work on his puck-handling.
Sophomore Martin Ouellette (1-3, 3.42, .871) became the forgotten man but he must continue his development and play more under control. He has talent and has to be ready in case Sullivan gets hurt or falters.
Incoming freshman Matt Morris has a lot of potential and is coming from former Black Bear All-American and captain Jim Montgomery’s Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League. He is 15-13-2 with a 2.62 GAA and a .893 save percentage this season.
O’Neill and shutdown defensive defenseman Ryan Hegarty (2 and 12) will depart but Nemec (0 and 5) emerged as a rock-steady defenseman; Cornell (1 and 7) is a strong, physical defenseman who needs to get a little better at handling the puck and Pryor (2 and 11), O’Connor (3 and 6) and Rutt (0 and 4 in 13 games) have good offensive instincts and need to continue to develop their defensive zone play.
Redshirt Billy Norman has one-man breakout capabilities with his speed and incoming freshman Ben Hutton (11 and 32 for two Ontario junior teams) is highly skilled to go with his 6-foot-3, 195-pound frame.
Maine has four returnees who scored at least 11 goals in Diamond, Mangene (16 and 18), Shemansky (11 and 10) and Mark Anthoine (12 and 7). Diamond and Anthoine share the national lead in power play-goals with 11 each.
Beattie (6 and 21) also had a breakthrough season.
Freshmen John Parker (3 and 4), a speedster like Mangene, and Stu Higgins (3 and 2) earned lots of ice time and that should help them become productive secondary scorers along with highly skilled Connor Leen (1 and 0). Junior Leidermark (2 and 1), sophomore Jon Swavely (1 and 6) and freshman Andrew Cerretani (1 and 0) should continue to develop as useful role players.
The list of incoming forwards is highlighted by Ryan Lomberg, who has 21 and 14 in 48 games for Muskegon in the United States Hockey League, Devin Shore (29 and 29 in 48 games for Whitby in the Ontario Junior Hockey League) and Will Merchant (25 and 27 in 31 games for Eagan (Minn.) High School.
The penalty killing (79.2 percent, 48th in the country) has to improve and it should.