ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine men’s hockey team had a glorious opportunity to extend its winning streak to four games on Saturday night and to build momentum for its remaining 17 games, all in Hockey East.
The Black Bears were playing Mercyhurst University from Atlantic Hockey and, following Friday night’s 2-1 win over the Lakers in Portland, the Bears stormed the net in the first period on Saturday night looking to establish a strong foothold in the game.
But, as has been the case on several occasions this season, they couldn’t maximize their control of the puck and wound up entering the intermission tied 1-1 instead of ahead by three or four goals.
Mercyhurst came back to win 5-2.
The Black Bears aren’t going to dwell on the frustrating loss.
Instead they are going to take a glass half-full attitude as they prepare for games at Northeastern and Merrimack on Friday and Saturday nights, respectively.
“We took three steps forward and one step back,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead.
Whitehead and his team have begun the second half of the season with a different approach: breaking the season down into four-game segments.
“We took six out of a possible eight points although we would have liked all eight,” said senior center Kyle Beattie, referring to Maine’s wins over Minnesota-Duluth (1-0) and Cornell (6-4) in the Florida College Classic and the Friday victory over Mercyhurst.
Beattie and his mates know that if they can continue to win three games in each of the remaining four-game blocks, they will be able to climb out of the Hockey East cellar and make the league playoffs.
Finishing in the top eight of the 10-team league and qualifying for the playoffs is the team’s goal.
“It’s not going to be easy. It’s the best league in the country. But we know how we have to play to win,” said senior tri-captain Joey Diamond. “We’re going to take as much as we can from the first period of Saturday’s game and the previous three games into this weekend’s games.”
“The first period on Saturday night was one of the best periods we’ve played all season, but we’ve got to find a killer instinct,” said Beattie. “We needed to put more pucks in the net and build a big lead. And there was no excuse for how we played in the second period. We’ve got to be more consistent.”
He added that the Mercyhurst games “didn’t really mean anything” because they were nonconference games and Maine’s overall record (now 5-12-2) leaves it out of the picture for an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament.
The only way Maine could qualify for the NCAA Tournament is to win the Hockey East tourney and earn the automatic berth.
“We’re looking ahead. We aren’t the same team we were earlier this season,” said junior right wing Jon Swavely. “We’ve gotten some guys back from injury and we’re going to get a few more back, too. We feel better about ourselves than we did earlier. We’re excited about our Hockey East games.”
One thing the Black Bears have definitely had in recent weeks is quality goaltending.
Over the past 10 games, junior Martin Ouellette and freshman Matt Morris have combined for a 1.98 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage.
And junior Dan Sullivan won 22 games a year ago and could still be a factor this season even though he hasn’t played since a 4-0 loss to New Hampshire on Nov. 11.
“Our goaltenders have given us a chance to win every game,” said Beattie.
Another positive has been an improved power play.
Maine, which had the nation’s worst power-play percentage at one time, has moved from 59th to 53rd thanks to its current stretch of at least one power-play goal in its last three games.
Maine is 4-for-12 over those three games (33.3 percent) to raise its success rate to 10.3 percent on the season.
Goal scoring continues to be the most prominent problem, as Maine’s 1.63 goals per game rank it 58th in the country.
“We have to play with confidence. We have to believe we can score goals,” said Swavely.
Maine, 1-7-2 in Hockey East, is just four points out of a playoff spot.
Northeastern and UMass Lowell are tied for eighth place with seven points and Northeastern has played two more league games.
UMass has nine points, Vermont has 10, Merrimack has 11 and Providence is in fourth place with 12 points.
Boston College (19), New Hampshire (17) and Boston University (16) have separated themselves from the pack.
Maine will host Merrimack for a pair the following weekend, meaning the two teams will play three games in a row against each other.
The Black Bears are looking forward to going on the road, because they have had more success away from Alfond Arena, where they are in the midst of a school-record nine-game winless streak (0-7-2).
Maine is 1-4 on the road, all in league play, but three of the losses have been by one goal.
“We have a road warrior mentality,” said Swavely.
“Every game we have left is like a playoff game,” said Beattie, who will enter the weekend with a three-game points streak (2 goals, 3 assists).
“We’ve got to clean up our special teams play and protect our goalies better. We’ve got to play better in the defensive zone,” said senior tri-captain Mark Nemec.
Maine concluded the nonconference portion of its schedule with a 4-5 mark.
Bears getting healthier
Maine didn’t suffer any injuries over the weekend and freshman left wing Conor Riley and senior center Klas Leidermark are the only two remaining Black Bears on the injury list with concussions.
They are questionable for this weekend.
Junior defenseman Brice O’Connor returned to the lineup Saturday after missing two games with a shoulder ailment.