ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine men’s hockey team added an element to its game over the weekend and it helped produce its first two-game winning streak of the season and its second straight Florida College Classic championship.
The Black Bears played with an edge and became a physical team.
And the Black Bears feel that’s the way they’ll have to play in the second half of the season to begin climbing the Hockey East standings.
They are currently in last place.
“We set the tone physically against the two teams we played,” said Cornell, referring to Minnesota-Duluth (1-0) and Cornell University (6-4). “I think it’s a good idea to play that way. It’s the way we have to play to be successful.
“We have to walk that line between playing clean and playing mean. That’s my opinion. I’m not sure where the coaches stand on that.”
Cornell, one of the team’s most physical players, said its important to be “hard to play against” and combining physicality and a strong defensive presence will make them that way on a consistent basis.
“We were playing the body way more than we ever had,” said freshman center Steven Swavely. “It takes its toll on the other team.”
One of the most physical players was senior center Kyle Beattie, who was chosen the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. He had a goal and a two assists in the title game and landed some bone-rattling checks.
“Kyle was very impressive. He was really physical,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead.
Beattie had been having a frustrating senior season entering the tournament.
He missed six games in two different stretches due to two concussions and had just one assist in seven games before the Cornell game. He was the team’s second-leading returning scorer after notching six goals and 21 assists a year ago.
Beattie said he gave considerable thought to bringing more of a physical nature to his game during the Christmas break.
“If you can go out and have three, four, five or six hits, you feel so much more involved in the game and you feel better. If I can make sure I set the tone physically along with the other team leaders, the whole team follows,” said Beattie.
The six goals were a season-high as the Bears entered the tournament as the lowest-scoring team in college hockey, averaging 1.33 goals per game.
Beattie pointed out that their physical play and defensive positioning can give them a chance to also win low-scoring games.
It can also lead to more scoring chances because opponents will be more likely to turn the puck over if they know they’re going to get hit every time they touch the puck.
“You don’t have to crush somebody every time. You just have to let them know you’re there,” explained Beattie. “They’ll have to keep their heads up and they may be looking for you before they look for the puck. It’s the same for our defensemen. If they always finish their checks, the opposing forwards won’t be able to make plays they want to make.”
“We were able to get in on the forecheck a lot better,” said sophomore center Stu Higgins. “And all of the lines were getting in there.”
In addition to discovering the benefits of physical play, the 4-11-2 Black Bears also received a big boost of confidence.
“We found out we can play with the big boys,” said Higgins.
“We can beat anybody on a given night,” added Swavely. “And we showed we can produce offense and win games like that, too.”
Swavely’s older brother, Jon, returned to the lineup after having surgery on his quadriceps, and he was put on a checking line with Higgins and Anthoine.
They were a combined plus-four in plus-minus during the weekend.
Players are given a plus-one if they’re on the ice when their team scores an even-strength or shorthanded goal and a minus one if the other team scores one.
“They were very steady,” said Whitehead.
“Cornell had a great first line, but playing against them helped us raise over level of play. And we got plenty of scoring chances,” said Higgins. “Our mindset is that we aren’t just going to sit back and let them dictate the play to us, we can dictate the play to them.”
Higgins noted that high-powered lines usually don’t like to play physically and aren’t as strong defensively as other lines because they’re focused on offense.
Bears’ injuries mounting
Whitehead isn’t sure what his lineup will be for the Friday-Saturday series against 8-6-1 Mercyhurst College from Atlantic Hockey.
Maine and Mercyhurst will play Friday in Portland and Saturday at the Alfond Arena. Both game times are 7 p.m.
Freshman left wing Conor Riley and senior center Klas Leidermark sustained concussions over the weekend and junior defenseman Brice O’Connor suffered a shoulder injury. Riley and Leidermark won’t play and O’Connor is doubtful.
Senior right wing and tri-captain Joey Diamond missed the tournament due to a neck-back ailment and is also questionable.
Senior defenseman Nick Pryor (flu) and senior left wing Adam Shemansky (mononucleosis) also missed the tournament and are questionable for the weekend, as well.
Whitehead said junior goalie Martin Ouellette, who shut out UMD on Friday but was lifted after allowing three goals in 10:33 against Cornell and replaced by freshman Matt Morris (22 saves on 23 shots), will probably start on Friday with Morris likely to get Saturday’s start.
Ouellette had been exceptional during a seven-game stretch before the Cornell game, posting a 1.69 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage.