ORONO, Maine — Through its first 23 games, the University of Maine’s men’s hockey team scored just 35 goals for an average of 1.52 goals per game.
Not surprisingly, the team was 5-14-4 overall and in last place in Hockey East with a 1-9-4 mark.
But the Black Bears have scored 39 goals in their last 13 games (3 gpg) and have gone 6-3-4, all in league play, to earn the eighth seed in the Hockey East Tournament.
“Everybody has been contributing. We’ve been getting goals from everyone. The freshmen have been playing great and we’ve all been doing the little things right. Things have started to click for us,” said senior right wing Joey Diamond.
“We’re all getting a little more confident,” added freshman center Steven Swavely. “We’re keeping things simple. We’re throwing pucks to the net and driving the net looking for rebounds. We’re not trying to do too much individually, we’re playing together as lines.”
The Black Bears have scored 26 goals in their last eight games (3.25 gpg) and 12 in their last three (4 gpg).
In their upcoming series at Tsongas Arena in Lowell, Mass., they will be taking on a UMass Lowell team that became the first team other than New Hampshire, Boston College, Boston University or Maine to claim the league’s regular-season championship since its inception in 1984-85.
The River Hawks, 22-10-2 overall and 16-9-2 in Hockey East, have gone 18-3-1 over their last 22 games.
The two teams will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, with an if-necessary game set at 4 p.m. Sunday. The other three league series are Friday-Saturday-Sunday but the Maine-UML series had to be altered because a full card of boxing is scheduled at Tsongas Arena on Saturday night.
In its last 13 games, Maine has received points from 21 players, including an assist from goalie Martin Ouellette. Eighteen players have at least two points and nine have at least five.
Fourteen players have scored goals. Diamond and freshman center and linemate Devin Shore have led the way.
Diamond has nine goals and six assists although he missed two of the 13 games because of a back injury. Shore has 2 & 12 in 13 games and the third member of their line, freshman left wing Ryan Lomberg, has 4 & 4 over the stretch.
Steven Swavely has 5 & 3 and defensemen Jake Rutt and Ben Hutton each have 2 & 5. Rutt is a sophomore and Hutton is a freshman. Senior center Kyle Beattie (4 & 1 in seven games), junior right wing Jon Swavely (2 & 3) and freshman left wing Will Merchant (2 & 3) are the others with at least five points.
The goal surge has been due to the team getting to the net more, according to junior defenseman Brice O’Connor.
“Coach [Tim Whitehead] has been harping on that all season. We’ve finally figured it out. You need to get pucks to the net and bodies to the net,” O’Connor said. “If a defenseman takes a shot from the point, it’s going to be an easy save for the goalie if he sees it the whole way. We have to gets screens and tips and rebounds.”
Whitehead added, “We’ve worked hard on developing skill and hockey sense.”
Beattie, who has three goals and an assist in four games since returning from a six-game absence after suffering his third concussion of the season, said the young players have benefited from receiving experience.
“Our freshmen have played all the time. They’ve been in different roles and now with all of these games under their belts, things are coming together,” said Beattie.
“The playing time has helped us a lot. It has given us a tremendous amount of confidence,” said Steven Swavely, who plays both on the power play and penalty-killing as well as a regular shift. “Maybe the freshmen on other teams don’t get the playing time we do. We’ve been stepping up and producing.”
At least seven of Maine’s eight freshmen have played in the last nine games and all eight played in the 4-3 win and 4-4 tie at New Hampshire last weekend.
Four of Maine’s top five scorers are freshmen.
Diamond (14 & 10) leads the team in scoring but he is followed by Shore (4 & 19), Hutton (4 & 11), Steven Swavely (6 & 8) and Lomberg (7 & 6), who is tied with Beattie (7 & 6).
Maine is also 12-for-52 (23.1 percent) on the power play over the last 11 games after being mired under 10 percent for most of the season.