To make the playoffs, Maine hockey team needs to overcome its lack of a difference-maker

Posted Jan. 15, 2013, at 6:12 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 16, 2013, at 5:16 p.m.

Some call them difference-makers.

Others call them game-changers.

But they are one in the same.

What they do is make plays at critical times that lead their team to victory.

It proves to be the turning point in the game.

It requires talent, leadership, a fierce competitive nature and a flair for the dramatic.

Most of them are point-producers but not all of them.

For example, oft-penalized defenseman Prestin Ryan was a difference-maker for the University of Maine’s men’s hockey team in 2003-2004, helping to lead them to a spot in the NCAA championship game.

He had 22 points (4 goals, 18 assists) and 148 penalty minutes but he was an imposing presence in front of the Maine net. Those forwards who ventured to the Maine net front would pay a stiff price courtesy of a punishing Ryan check.

He was also one of those special defensemen who was a one-man breakout.

He had good acceleration and could skate the puck out of the zone by himself, enabling the team to transition to offense.

Maine led the nation in team defense (1.57 goals-against average) that year behind Ryan and goalies Jimmy Howard and Frank Doyle.

Another game-changer on that team was center Michel Leveille. He had a team-high 34 assists but when he suffered a knee injury early in the first period of the 1-0 loss to Denver in the title game and wound up playing on basically one leg, the Black Bears struggled to produce offense.

Cory Larose was a game-changer during the 1999-2000 season, but when he couldn’t play in the Frozen Four semifinal after receiving a questionable penalty in the 5-2 quarterfinal win over Michigan, the Black Bears were blanked by North Dakota 2-0.

That is the problem with this year’s Maine team.

They simply don’t have any game-changers or difference-makers.

The Maine women’s basketball team hasn’t had one in several years and that has compounded their struggles.

The hockey team had three a year ago in Spencer Abbott, Brian Flynn and Will O’Neill, but they weren’t replaced.

They just don’t have a player who can regularly score a clutch goal, set one up, make a great defensive play or land a momentum-changing check that ignites the home crowd and sends a message to the opponents that they are in for a long night.

They would have had one if Matt Mangene had returned for his senior year, but he passed it up to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Still, that happens to every team in college hockey. That’s no excuse. Other players need to be in place to step up and assume that role and Maine doesn’t have them.

They have players who are useful role players but they can’t individually turn the tide in a game with any regularity.

Look at last Saturday night’s 6-0 loss at Merrimack College.

It was an evenly played game until Mike Collins scored with 4:54 left in the first period and set up Quinn Gould’s goal with a precise pass 4:06 later.

Junior left winger Collins is a difference-maker.

Those goals turned the game around and by the 6:11 mark of the second period, it was 4-0.

When a team doesn’t have a game-changer or difference-maker, it means they must receive a collective effort from everyone to emerge with a win. If one aspect of their game is off, it’s very difficult to leave the ice victorious.

That is the dilemma facing the Black Bears in their quest to make the Hockey East playoffs.

Maine head coach Tim Whitehead and his staff haven’t been able to recruit a difference-maker and it is unlikely that they will have someone emerge as a game-changer at this stage of the season.

The ones with the most potential are in the freshman class and they’re a year away from being that kind of player.

The Paul Kariyas of the world are extremely rare.

Kariya won the Hobey Baker Award as a freshman in Maine’s amazing 42-1-2 NCAA championship year in 1992-93 and he is still the only freshman to have captured the coveted award given to college hockey’s best player.

So if Maine is going to make a run to climb out of the cellar over the final 15 games, the Black Bears will need every player to maximize his potential, keep games close and low-scoring and hope a player or two will start putting the puck in the net with some regularity.

If not, it’s hard to envision this team escaping the embarrassment of being one of just two teams in the 10-team league to miss the Hockey East playoffs.

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