ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine men’s hockey team entered the season with a new coaching staff, a fan-pleasing aggressive style of play and plenty of question marks.
The Black Bears, under head coach Red Gendron and assistants Jay Leach, Ben Guite and Ray Jean, were one of the nation’s biggest overachievers entering the final two games of the regular season. They could have finished as high as second in Hockey East after being picked eighth in the coaches preseason poll.
But Providence College swept Maine at Alfond Arena in Orono, so the Black Bears wound up sixth.
After Maine beat last-place Merrimack 2-0 in their first-round Hockey East playoff game, Providence swept the Bears in their quarterfinal series this past weekend in Rhode Island.
Maine finished 16-15-4 and the record was an accurate depiction of the Black Bears, but it was a significant improvement over last year’s 11-19-6 mark.
The Black Bears also righted the ship at home, going 13-3 after last year’s 2-9-6 disaster.
However, the season-ending 1-5-1 collapse and the team’s abysmal 1-12-3 road record verified the fact the Black Bears weren’t quite an NCAA Tournament-caliber team.
If the Black Bears had made the NCAA Tournament, they would have been a tough out because of their work ethic, grittiness and the trio of senior goaltender Martin Ouellette, sophomore center Devin Shore and sophomore defenseman Ben Hutton.
Maine went 2-1-1 against the top two regular-season finishers in Hockey East, Boston College and UMass Lowell.
But this team simply didn’t have enough scoring depth and when Ouellette struggled down the stretch, his teammates weren’t able to bail him out by outscoring their opponents.
Maine scored two goals or less in 13 of its last 18 games.
Ouellette was the primary reason the Black Bears were in position to finish among the league’s top three with his strong play, but in their 1-5-1 finish, he posted a sub-par 3.35 goals-against average and .892 save percentage and his mates averaged just 2.29 goals per game. The power play went 2-for-26.
Their power play went a dismal 4-for-55 over the final 15 games while their opponents went 12-for-64.
“It didn’t end the way we wanted but we learned a lot and got a lot better,” said sophomore center and leading scorer Shore, who will captain next year’s team. “We learned how to win some games that we would have found a way to lose last year. At the same time, we haven’t quite learned how to win those important games at the end of the season. It’s a process.”
Junior defenseman Jake Rutt of Scarborough said overall it was a pretty good season.
“We improved over last season but we aren’t satisfied because we didn’t achieve our goals. This will give us more motivation and energy for next year,” said Rutt, who will be an assistant captain next season.
Maine scored nearly one more goal per game (2.91-2.03) than a year ago; allowed 2.37 gpg compared to 2.74 and was assessed 9.8 penalty minutes per game compared to 14.5 in 2012-13.
The Black Bears were fearless and their compete level was excellent but their lack of size — Maine was the third smallest team among 59 Division I programs — was problematic at times because they didn’t have quite enough speed, talent or experience to compensate.
That will change immediately with the improvement among the returnees and the size in the incoming freshman class.
“This team had a huge heart,” said Gendron. “They gave everything they had and always battled their tails off. But we just weren’t good enough and didn’t execute well enough to take the next step.”
Gendron provided his team with intense but enjoyable, competition-oriented practices and stressed constant improvement and accountability.
Eleven of the top 12 scorers, nine of whom were freshmen or sophomores, and five of the six regular defensmen will return next season but the goaltending situation will be a question mark as Ouellette (15-15-4, 2.29 goals-against average, .925 save percentage) and fellow senior Dan Sullivan (1-0, 2.21, .912) depart.
Ouellette set the single-season school record with 926 saves.
Redshirt sophomore Matt Morris, who appeared in six games in 2012-13 last season, will be back after sitting out this season due to hip surgery. Nik Nugnes joined the team in midseason and Sean Romeo is the incoming recruited goalie. Those three will battle it out.
Shore (14 goals, 29 assists), junior Connor Leen (6-17), sophomore Steven Swavely (10-10), freshman Cam Brown (4-15), sophomore Ryan Lomberg (11-7) and freshman Blaine Byron (8-8) will headline the list of returning forwards along with junior Stu Higgins (6-4), who played in just 20 games due to season-ending knee surgery and will be an assistant captain.
Shore is an elite-caliber game-changer who has emerged as one of the country’s top forwards.
Junior transfer Andrew Tegeler, who sat out this season, is 6-foot-2, 200 pounds and will be one of four new forwards along with incoming freshmen Nolan Vesey (6-0, 175 pounds), Joe Widmar (6-2, 195) and Liam Pecararo (5-9, 150).
Hutton set the school regular-season record for defensemen with 15 goals, nine on the power play, to go with 14 assists, and he will anchor the defense corps. Swift-skating sophomore Conor Riley (0-5) and freshman Eric Schurhamer (3-7) turned in impressive seasons; freshman Dan Renouf (1-10) had a solid campaign and Rutt (1-6) turned in three top-notch performances in the playoffs after an inconsistent regular season.
Incoming freshmen, 6-3, 220-pound Mark Hamilton and 6-2, 210-pound Malcolm Hayes, will add grit and size to the defense corps.
“We’re excited about the opportunity we have next year,” said Lomberg. “We’re going to work that much harder this summer because [our finish] left a bitter taste in our mouths.”
Senior defenseman and captain Brice O’Connor said the foundation, the principles and values “to build this program back to where it is supposed to be [among the nation’s elite]” were installed by Gendron this season.
“I’m so excited for the guys coming back,” said O’Connor.