ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine men’s hockey team earned its first NCAA Tournament appearance since the 2006-2007 season a year ago.
This year’s club is capable of earning another NCAA berth if it can score enough goals, especially against the top teams in Hockey East.
The Black Bears finished up at 23-14-2 last season, losing to Minnesota-Duluth 5-2 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The four-year NCAA tourney drought followed a string of nine consecutive appearances in the tournament.
Maine, picked to finish fifth in Hockey East, opens against Quinnipiac, which was 20-14-6 a year ago, at 7 p.m. Saturday at Alfond Arena before hosting the University of New Brunswick in a 4 p.m. exhibition game on Sunday.
Look for the Black Bears to be in a lot of low-scoring, one-goal games.
Goaltending should be a definite strength and they will also be three-deep in that position, which is rare.
The defense corps could emerge into a strong unit but there are still some question marks.
They have lost players who scored 46.6 percent of their goals and registered 55 percent of their assists a year ago.
The scoring slack will have to be picked up by veterans, who will take on more prominent roles, and promising newcomers.
“The goals will come throughout the year once guys start getting more comfortable and gain a little confidence. They’ll realize they can make plays at this level. The only way to gain experience is by playing games,” said senior defenseman and tri-captain Mike Cornell. “They’ll learn on the fly and they’ll have to be quick learners.”
Senior right wing and tri-captain Joey Diamond was Hockey East’s top goal scorer a year ago both in overall play (25) and league games (20). He is a proven commodity and must continue to limit his time in the penalty box like he did the second half of last season, when he accrued just 29 penalty minutes in his final 18 games after amassing 88 in his first 20.
However, he must keep playing hard-nosed hockey, because that’s when he’s at his best.
He is one of the best cornermen in college hockey. He wins the vast majority of his puck battles around the net.
His 2011-2012 linemates, first team All-American Spencer Abbott and first team All-Hockey East pick Brian Flynn, have graduated. They combined for 39 goals and 71 assists.
The other key loss up front is versatile Matt Mangene (16 goals, 18 assists), who also saw some service on defense.
Maine hasn’t finished any lower than 12th in the nation in scoring the last three seasons.
“We have to keep it simple. We have to get pucks to the net and get as many shots on goal as possible,” said Diamond. “We’ve got to do the little things around the net to put pucks in.”
Seniors Kyle Beattie (6 goals, 21 assists) and Adam Shemansky (11 and 10) and junior Mark Anthoine (12 and 7) will be called upon to upgrade their production.
Beattie has to shoot more, he only averaged 1.5 shots on goal per game a year ago, and must become a more consistent presence. He is capable of producing 35-45 points.
Shemansky is Maine’s most creative forward and one of their best passers. But he is undersized and often gets outmuscled, so it will be important for him to keep his feet moving and spin off checks.
Lewiston’s Anthoine had 11 power-play goals and a shorthanded goal last season, so Maine will look for him to be more productive in even-strength situations. He has a quick release on his shot and could be a 15-20 goal scorer.
Maine coach Tim Whitehead said two of the sophomores who could supply valuable supplemental scoring are Stu Higgins and Connor Leen.
Higgins (3 and 2) evolved into the team’s checking-line center a year ago but is ready to expand his role. He has added 10 pounds, which will help him win puck battles. Leen (1 and 0 in 20 games) can “really be an impact player” said Whitehead.
Freshman Devin Shore, a second-round draft pick of the Dallas Stars, is a proven point-producer and has opened eyes in the preseason. He is projected as a top six forward.
“He has looked great,” said Whitehead. “He’s a big kid (6-1, 185 pounds) with very good skill. He has real good hockey sense and a good presence on the ice.”
Speedster Ryan Lomberg could also vie for top-six playing time when he recovers from his broken foot. He mirrors Diamond in the way he plays, said Whitehead.
The loss of swift-skating John Parker (3 and 4) with a broken foot until at least January and possibly for the season is a significant one.
Senior Klas Leidermark (2 and 1), junior Jon Swavely (1 and 6) and sophomore Andrew Cerretani (1 and 0) could fill important roles and freshmen Will Merchant, Conor Riley and Steven Swavely, Jon’s brother, are very much in the picture.
Merchant could supply some scoring as he adapts to the college game.
The blue-line corps lost its best offensive defenseman in Will O’Neill (3 and 30) and its top defensive defenseman in Ryan Hegarty (2 and 12).
Senior defenseman Mark Nemec (0 and 5) teamed up with Hegarty as Maine’s shutdown pairing and will be called upon to revise his role. Cornell (1 and 7) is the only other defenseman with more than 47 games of experience and will take on an elevated role.
Senior Nick Pryor (2 and 11), junior Brice O’Connor (3 and 6) and sophomore Jake Rutt (0 and 4 in 13 games) are two-way defensemen who could help provide some offensive punch.
Freshman and fifth-round draft pick Ben Hutton (Vancouver) is a potential power-play point man who headlines the list of newcomers. Swift-skating redshirt freshman Billy Norman and Bowdoinham’s Kyle Williams have also impressed and will be in the mix. Riley can also play defense.
Junior Dan Sullivan had a breakthrough year in goal after winning the job and finished with a 22-11-3 record, a 2.59 goals-against average and a .890 save percentage. He allowed one goal or less 10 times.
Junior Martin Ouellette is a reliable backup with experience and freshman Matt Morris is the goalie of the future who has looked sharp in preseason, according to Whitehead.
“We’re very confident in our goaltending and that’s a great place to start,” said Whitehead. “Sullivan will be our number one entering the season and I’m confident he’ll keep improving. But it’s nice to know we have two solid guys behind him who can certainly run in the number one spot if necessary.”
The goaltending should help the team defense improve on its recent numbers. Maine hasn’t finished any higher than 32nd in team defense over the last five seasons.
The power play will have a new look since top three power-play points-producers Abbott (31 points), Flynn (20) and O’Neill (20) are gone. Maine had the nation’s second-best power play (26.7 percent) last year and top power play (27.7) in the 2009-2010 season.
But Diamond and Anthoine tied for the national lead in power-play goals with 11 apiece; Shemansky and Beattie each had 12 power-play points and Pryor had five, so Maine has the potential to have at least one very good unit.
The penalty killing was 48th among 58 teams and must get better.