ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine men’s hockey team has certainly dug itself a hole with its 2-9-1 start (1-5-1 in Hockey East).
But the Black Bears will enter the Thanksgiving break with a win and a tie in their last two games following a seven-game losing streak, and that will give them something to build on when they return to action against Vermont on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at Alfond Arena.
Maine will practice through Wednesday before getting three days off for Thanksgiving and returning to practice Sunday.
“It will be good to have a couple of days off,” said Maine senior defenseman and tri-captain Mike Cornell. “We have a lot of guys dinged up. Everybody has a little something going on [healthwise]. I’m sure it’s the same across the league. But our team has been hit pretty hard.”
“This break is coming at a good time for us,” agreed senior right wing and tri-captain Joey Diamond. “It’s nice to have some time off so guys can really get healthy.”
Diamond is one of the players who can especially use the time off.
His back seized up on him after he absorbed some hits in the 2-1 loss at UMass Lowell on Nov. 9 and he missed the next night’s 4-3 win.
He did return to the lineup in Friday’s 2-2 overtime tie with UMass.
“It’ll definitely help me,” said Diamond. “Time off helps heal everything.”
Sophomore center Stu Higgins should be another beneficiary.
He suffered a bruised quadriceps muscle and had to have stitches after blocking a shot in the 4-0 loss to New Hampshire on Nov. 4. He did play the next three games although he wasn’t at 100 percent and didn’t get the ice time he usually receives, especially in the two UMass Lowell games.
“Joey and Stu are two small guys who play bigger than they are, and when you play like that, injuries are going to happen. It’s part of the game,” said Cornell. “This will be a much-needed break [for them].”
In addition, redshirt freshman defenseman/forward Billy Norman finally received the green light to practice a week ago after suffering a badly sprained ankle that had kept him sidelined for seven games. Maine coach Tim Whitehead decided not to use him against UMass for precautionary reasons, but he should be ready to play against Vermont barring any relapses.
Maine also will regain the services of junior defenseman Brice O’Connor, who missed the UMass game due to a mandatory one-game suspension for a contact-to-the-head penalty and game disqualification in the win over UMass Lowell.
The Black Bears are in last place in Hockey East with three points. Teams get two points for a win and one for a tie.
But Maine is just five points out of fourth place. UMass Lowell, Massachusetts and Northeastern have five points, Vermont has six, Merrimack has seven and Providence College has eight. League leader Boston College has 16, New Hampshire is second with 13 and Boston University has 10.
“We put ourselves behind where we want to be, but we have time to get back and, hopefully, we’ll be able to make up some ground here in the future,” said Cornell.
“There’s a lot of parity in this league. We’re in the basement right now but we’ve shown we can play with BC and New Hampshire,” said sophomore defenseman Jake Rutt. “We can play with anyone and it’s the same with any other team. If you don’t bring it [on a given night], you can lose.”
Rutt added that the recent play of junior goalie Martin Ouellette has given the team a big boost.
Ouellette has started the last three games and is 1-1-1 with a 2.28 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.
“It really helps when you have confidence in your goalie,” said Rutt. “He was our best player against UMass.”
Maine is currently 58th among 59 Division I teams in goal production (1.42 goals per game) and power-play efficiency (5.4 percent), tied for 43rd in goals-against (3.08) and 38th on the penalty kill (81.4 percent). Maine is the nation’s ninth-most penalized team (15.5 minutes per game).
“We’ve struggled in some areas, but we’re going to improve in those areas,” said Diamond. “We’ve just got to take it one period at a time. That’s our main focus right now.”
“We’ve got to apply our road mentality at home,” said Cornell. “We’ve got go play quietly efficient, chip away and play a full 60-minute game. We didn’t play great on Friday night. The effort was there, but we didn’t execute. We’ll have three hard days of practice and, as a captain, I expect everyone to stay in shape and hold each other accountable over the break.”
“We want to hit the ground running when we return,” added Cornell.
Following the Vermont series on Nov. 30-Dec. 1, Maine will visit Boston University for a game on Dec. 8 before going on Christmas break.