Black Bears need wins, confidence

Posted Oct. 27, 2009, at 10:41 p.m.

Hockey is a simple game.

But it is anything but simple for the University of Maine men’s hockey team these days.

The Alfond Arena faithful were expecting to see some progress this season after a pair of miserable 13-win campaigns.

But the 1-5 start is the program’s worst since the 1985-86 team went 1-11.

One of the major problems facing the Black Bears is the loss of their identity.

When Maine was vying for national championships and making nine straight NCAA Tournament appearances including four Frozen Fours in six years, the Maine jersey carried weight.

There was an intimidating swagger attached to the Maine jersey that was good for at least a goal or two per game.

Most opponents didn’t expect to win, especially at the Alfond Arena, and once the Bears grabbed a lead or strung together several shifts of dominance, it was over.

And the Bears found ways to win even if they weren’t at the top of their game. They believed in themselves and their ability to overcome adversity.

They were resilient.

Not any more.

Hockey East teams don’t fear Maine and actually expect to win, even at the Alfond Arena.

The Black Bears are like a wounded animal because they lack confidence and have lost that swagger.

There is additional pressure because the players are fully aware of the tradition. That’s one of the primary reasons they decided to come to Maine.

They want desperately to turn things around.

It’s just not happening yet.

And until they’re able to put together some wins, they won’t play with confidence.

That’s not to say there isn’t improvement in some areas.

There is.

The freshman forwards have raised the level of speed and skill and given the Alfond Arena faithful hope that there will eventually be four pretty good lines including two scoring lines instead of just one.

But they will have to get better play from their defense corps and goaltenders to string wins together.

And the forwards have to improve their defensive play.

Inconsistent goaltending and poor net-front coverage have been the major culprits.

The Bears also have to do a better job getting their shots through and finding the net with them.

They have had way too many shots blocked and have missed the net far too often.

They must do a better job off the puck, moving their feet to find a soft spot in the opponents’ defensive zone coverage and then releasing their shots quickly and accurately.

You can’t generate rebounds if you miss the net.

The three goalies each have a weakness or two that has to be addressed and the first one who does so will emerge as the No. 1.

The Boston University Terriers are living proof of the impact of substandard goaltending.

Two years ago, the Terriers may have had a better team than last year’s national championship squad.

But the goaltending was abysmal (2.88 goals-against average, .878 save percentage) and the Terriers didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament.

Last year, the Terriers had a 2.00 GAA and a .915 save percentage.

I didn’t expect a great start for the Bears; 3-3 would have been very respectable.

But they have to forget it.

They have single-game home weekends against Frozen Four team Vermont and national champ BU next.

A win or two could go a long way in helping them gain confidence and begin their quest for respectability.

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