After winning only five Hockey East games in each of the last two seasons, a youthful University of Maine hockey team is finally making inroads.
Entering the holiday break, UMaine has already won four league games (4-4-1). The Black Bears (8-7-1 overall) are riding a five-game unbeaten streak (4-0-1).
UMaine, which had a 19-45-10 overall record the last two seasons, is 6-2-1 in its last nine games after a 2-5 start.
The Black Bears’ 6-2 win at UMass Lowell on Nov. 4 ended UMaine’s 23-game road winless streak (0-19-4).
UMaine’s top five scorers are four sophomores and a freshman. Three freshman defensemen are logging regular minutes.
Freshman goalie Jeremy Swayman, one of three goalies on the Team U.S.A. roster for the upcoming International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Junior Championships in Buffalo, New York, has the nation’s eighth-best save percentage (.927) and the 12th-best winning percentage (.682, 7-3-1).
“There is no question we’re improving,” said fifth-year head coach Red Gendron. “Over the last five games, I’ve really seen our team grow.
“We’re really in a positive place right now,” he added. “We haven’t won anything yet but we’ve put ourselves in position to do something.”
Gendron said one of the keys to the team’s success has been its leadership.
“The leadership group has kept the locker room focused on the challenges we face,” said Gendron. “That includes the captains but it also includes key members in every class, including a couple of freshmen.
“That has been a real important part of it and the players deserve credit for it,” added Gendron.
The co-captains are senior defenseman Mark Hamilton and sophomore freshman Chase Pearson and the alternate captains are senior center Cedric Lacroix and junior defenseman Rob Michel.
The team has demonstrated resilience.
UMaine overcame a 3-0 first-period deficit and a 4-3 third-period disadvantage to earn a 7-4 win at Quinnipiac last Friday night.
The Black Bears’ current 4-0-1 stretch has come after they were shut out in back-to-back games by Boston University and Providence.
“This team has balance. We have depth at every position,” said Gendron.
This is his deepest team thanks to strong back-to-back recruiting classes. Last year’s freshman class scored 36 goals, second most in Hockey East. The current freshman class has 14 goals which ties it with Boston College for third.
The Black Bears are 10th among the 60 Division I hockey schools in goals, averaging 3.38 per game. Sixteen players have scored, 10 have scored at least three goals and five have at least five. Five players have reached double-digits in points.
Having depth means Gendron can sit players who aren’t playing up to their potential or are taking bad penalties. It also creates a more competitive environment in practice.
Two transfer centers have played important roles.
Brown University sophomore transfer Tim Doherty is tied for second on the team in points (6 goals, 6 assists). Quinnipiac transfer Canon Pieper (2 goals, 6 assists) is a senior with one more year of eligibility.
Both practiced with the team a year ago but couldn’t play due to NCAA transfer rules.
“Sitting out is a really difficult thing,” said Gendron. “But they both worked their tails off. They epitomized what is possible if you’re willing to put the work in. They set themselves up (to succeed) with their behavior at practice and in the weight room.”
Sophomore left wing Mitch Fossier has rebounded from an injury-marred freshman season, during which he missed nine games. He leads the team in scoring with six goals and seven assists. Fossier had 8 & 8 in 27 games last season.
Freshman right wing Eduards Tralmaks (7 & 5), a top-line power forward, Doherty (6 & 6) and sophomore defenseman Patrick Holway (4 & 8) have 12 points each.
Holway’s 12 points in 13 games put him seventh in the country among defensemen with 0.92 points per game. Pearson has 11 points, all assists.
Pearson is mired in a 17-game goal drought dating back to last season. Getting that first one would take the pressure off him and could trigger a goal-scoring surge that would give the team a lift. He was second on the team a year ago with 14 goals.
Junior right wing Brendan Robbins has always been able to generate scoring chances with his speed and tenacity and he is starting to finish with more regularity. His five goals are one fewer than his previous season high. He also has four assists.
Senior left wing Nolan Vesey (5 & 2) has registered three goals and two assists in his last five games and that is an important development.
Sophomore right wing Patrick Shea (3 & 4) scored the game-winner with 24.4 seconds left in the 5-3 win at Quinnipiac on Saturday and that could get him untracked after just one empty-net goal in his previous 11 games.
Freshman left wing Emil Westerlund (3 & 4) is off to a productive start and UMaine has plenty of gritty checkers capable of contributing occasional goals in the likes of Lacroix (2 & 4), junior Danny Perez (1 & 1) and sophomores Peter Housakos (2 & 1) and Ryan Smith (1 & 1).
On defense, Michel (3 & 5) sustained a knee injury in the first Quinnipiac game and his status is unknown. A long recovery would be problematic for UMaine because he is a game-changer and a top-notch quarterback on the power play.
Freshmen Brady Keeper (3 & 5), Alexis Binner (0 & 4) and Veli-Matti Tiuraniemi (1 & 2) have been impressive and have complemented Hamilton (0 & 1), Holway, Michel and reliable junior Keith Muehlbauer.
The poised Swayman has a 2.58 goals-against average and is coming off a 95-save weekend. He has come up with saves at critical times and his teammates have the utmost confidence in him. McGovern is a capable back-up with plenty of experience.
The special teams must improve and both are capable of doing so. The power play is operating at a respectable 18.8 percent but UMaine has the nation’s worst penalty-killing percentage (72.4 percent). The Black Bears did hold Quinnipiac scoreless with the man advantage last weekend (0-for-8).
UMaine returns to action Dec. 29-30 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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