ORONO, Maine — With the exception of Ben Hutton, who leads the nation’s defensemen in goals with 13, the University of Maine’s youthful defense corps has been quietly efficient this season.
The Black Bears blue line corps has been instrumental in the team posting its best defensive numbers since the 2005-2006 season entering this weekend’s Hockey East best-of-three quarterfinal series at Providence College.
Maine has the nation’s 12th best goals-against average at 2.30 after finishing 28th or worse in the previous six seasons. In the 2005-2006 season, the Black Bears allowed 2.26 goals per game which left them tied for fifth.
“They’re tough to play against,” said Providence senior right wing Derek Army. “You have to be on your toes every time you’re out there. They’re big and they have some really skilled players who can make plays. And they work hard.”
Friars sophomore goalie Jon Gillies said Maine’s defensemen are very good.
“They have a blend of puck movers and shutdown defensemen. Hutton is the key guy. He has a lot of skill and good mobility.”
Sophomore Hutton (13 goals, 14 assists) plays on a tandem with senior Brice O’Connor (2-5). Junior Jake Rutt (1-6) and sophomore Conor Riley (0-5) are paired together and freshmen Eric Schurhamer (3-7) and Dan Renouf (1-10) comprise the other tandem.
Renouf (plus-13), Schurhamer (plus-12) and Riley (plus-12) are three of Maine’s top five players in plus-minus along with center Devin Shore (plus-14) and left wing Mark Anthoine (plus-13). Players receive a plus-one if they are on the ice when their team scores an even-strength or shorthanded goal and they are assessed a minus-one if the opponent scores one.
“That is a group of kids that really works hard at getting better every single day,” said Maine coach Red Gendron. “They are very competitive. Different players bring different elements to the game. Some are better skaters, some are a little more physical, some are gifted offensively and some are rock-ribbed defensively.
“There’s a nice blend of different attributes. They have all gotten better in all phases of their game,” added Gendron.
Sophomores Billy Norman (1-6) and Kyle Williams (no points) also have seen limited blue line duty.
Riley said during the offseason, Gendron emailed them the “seven habits” he wanted them to focus on to help them improve their defensive play.
“It included things like keeping your head up and keeping it on a swivel along with stick positioning,” said Riley. “He harps on those in practice and, as a corps, we take them to heart. He also preaches taking away time and space (with the puck). It makes it hard for [the opponent] to make a play. Our big thing is trying to spend the least amount of time in our [defensive] zone.”
O’Connor said those seven habits are crucial to the success of a defense corps.
“The biggest thing is our attention to detail. Stick positioning may seem like a little thing but it makes a world of difference. We have to make sure we execute those things. We all compete really hard and push each other. We stick together and back each other up,” O’Connor said.
“We all take it personally if we get scored on in practice or in a game,” said Schurhamer. “And we help each other out.”
Rutt said they spent considerable time working on “making smooth breakout passes.”
“It’s a lot easier to play defense when you break the puck out the first time,” said Rutt.
“Everybody brings something a little different and that really helps us,” said Hutton who noted that senior goalie Martin Ouellette and the forwards have made their jobs easier.
“Marty is tremendous and when we’ve made errors, he has bailed us out. And the forwards backcheck hard,” Hutton added.
“Without our defense corps and Marty, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” said Maine sophomore right wing Ryan Lomberg. “They come prepared and make it tough on us in practice. They’re hard-nosed. They can get under your skin.”