Freshmen making immediate impact for Black Bears

Maine's Devin Shore (94) looks to find some open net ahead of St. Lawrence goalie Matt Weninger in second-period action at Alfond Arena on Oct. 20 2012
Terry Farren | BDN
Maine's Devin Shore (94) looks to find some open net ahead of St. Lawrence goalie Matt Weninger in second-period action at Alfond Arena on Oct. 20 2012 Buy Photo
Posted Nov. 13, 2012, at 6:09 p.m.

When a team struggles, the positives understandably can get overshadowed.

The University of Maine’s men’s hockey team has obviously dug itself a deep hole resulting from its 2-9 start and 1-5 Hockey East record.

But keep an eye on the freshman class. This could be one of the better classes in recent memory.

The all-freshman line of Devin Shore between Will Merchant and Ryan Lomberg has been, arguably, Maine’s best line since they were put together four games ago.

They have combined for two goals and four assists and have generated 21 shots on goal.

They are a collective plus-two in the plus-minus category. Players are awarded a plus-one if they’re on the ice for an even-strength or shorthanded goal and a minus-one if the opponent scores one.

And they are traditional freshmen, age-wise. Shore and Merchant are 18 and Lomberg is the youngest player in Hockey East at 17.

Shore is primarily a playmaker who can also score; Merchant is a goal scorer who can also be a distributor and Lomberg is a hard-nosed corner man who can generate offense. Shore and Merchant will also battle for pucks in the corners and in the high-traffic areas. They aren’t afraid to get their noses dirty.

Shore is tied for the team lead in points with five on a goal and four assists.

“They’ve been something else,” said senior defenseman and tri-captain Mike Cornell. “It’s impressive how quickly they’re learning. They’ll make young mistakes from time to time but it’s part of the process. It’s fun to play with them when they’re out there.”

Fellow freshmen Steven Swavely, a center, and Conor Riley have been valuable checking line assets and penalty-killers. Maine coach Tim Whitehead had no hesitation putting them out there to kill a critical penalty late in the third period of Saturday’s 4-3 win at UMass Lowell.

And their linemate on Saturday night, Bowdoinham freshman Kyle Williams, scored the game-winner.

The versatile Williams, a defenseman, has played every position except goalie.

Redshirt freshman Billy Norman can also play forward and defense and should contribute once he overcomes a badly sprained ankle.

Another prominent freshman has been defenseman Ben Hutton, who supplies the team with a poised playmaker at the point. He is their top scoring defenseman with a goal and three assists.

And freshman goalie Matt Morris has a lot of promise thanks to his quickness and technical ability.

“They’re all making a big impact right now,” said sophomore center Stu Higgins.

“As a group, they’re great guys. They’ve been sponges [willing to learn] the whole time,” said Cornell.

The freshmen have combined for 40 percent of Maine’s points and Riley and Norman are the only ones who don’t have a goal or an assist yet.

Make no mistake about it, the freshmen will commit their share of miscues.

The jump from high school or junior hockey to Division I is huge. Then add the fact they are in the best league in the country, based on four national championships in five years, and it’s even more pronounced.

But the improvement will be more dramatic, also.

This is a whole new world for the freshmen.

They are playing against older, stronger players.

Their time and space with the puck has been significantly diminished.

They have to make decisions much quicker than they did a year ago.

And they are adapting nicely.

They also have to adapt to the academic rigors and social aspects of college life.

Senior center Kyle Beattie noted that the freshmen have been put into critical situations that most freshmen wouldn’t normally find themselves in.

“But they’ve done a great job,” said Beattie.

And the coaching staff has made the right decision thrusting them into those situations.

They hold a key to the future of this program.

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