ORONO, Maine — After a forgettable first half which finds the University of Maine men’s hockey team mired in the Hockey East cellar, the 2-11-2 Black Bears hope to turn their season around beginning Friday when they face Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the Florida College Classic in Estero, Fla.
Cornell and Ferris State will open the tournament at 4 p.m. with the game between Maine and Minnesota-Duluth to follow at 7:30.
The consolation game will be 4 p.m. Saturday with the championship game to follow.
Maine coach Tim Whitehead and his team will practice Christmas night before leaving for Florida early Wednesday morning. They will practice in Florida on Wednesday and Thursday.
The team will be the healthiest it has been in a while, although senior defenseman Nick Pryor (flu) and senior left wing Adam Shemansky (mononucleosis) will miss the trip.
Whitehead feels his team has taken “baby steps” in several areas in recent weeks, but it has been rewarded in the win column only once, the 4-3 win at UMass Lowell on Nov. 10. Maine is 0-2-2 since then.
In its last six games, in which Maine has gone 1-3-2, the Black Bears have allowed 12 goals after surrendering 24 in their previous six and they have scored 10 goals after scoring just five in the six prior games.
Also, Maine is 4 for 27 on the power play (14.8 percent) and 20 for 23 on the penalty kill (87 percent) after going 1 for 32 (3.1 percent) with the man-advantage in the previous six games and killing off 31 of 40 (77.5 percent).
Whitehead pointed out that the discipline has been better as evidenced by the opponents’ 23 power-play chances after allowing 40 in the previous six games.
“We’ve had better defensive positioning which has resulted in fewer penalties,” explained Whitehead.
“We haven’t gotten the results we wanted in the last six games, but we’ve been in every game until the last whistle,” said Whitehead, whose team is still last among 59 Division I teams in scoring (1.33) and next-to-last in power-play percentage (7.0).
Junior goaltender Martin Ouellette has been one of the bright spots with his 1.96 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in the last six games.
Ouellette’s goaltending and the improvement in team defense and penalty-killing “are keeping us in games until we develop more scoring … which we will.”
Whitehead noted that his team has already lost 56 man-games to injury after losing just five man-games a season ago.
But the Black Bears are getting healthier.
Junior right wing Jon Swavely will return to the lineup after missing the last 12 games due to quadriceps surgery.
He had an assist in three games.
“Jon got off to a great start the first couple of weekends,” said Whitehead. “He’s a great penalty-killer and is great on the forecheck. He can also contribute on offense. He was his team’s leading scorer [70 points] in his last year of junior hockey [with the Jersey Hitmen],” said Whitehead.
The Christmas break should have also helped players who have been playing with nagging injuries.
Sophomore center Stu Higgins had been bothered by a quadriceps injury and senior right wing and tri-captain Joey Diamond has been playing with a tender back. Sophomore left wing Connor Leen (ankle) and freshman center Devin Shore (knee) should also be healed up along with senior defenseman Mike Cornell (back). Senior center Kyle Beattie missed six games early in the season due to concussions and should have benefited from the break.
Redshirt freshman defenseman/forward Billy Norman was hampered by an ankle injury but recently returned to the lineup and had a game-high seven shots on goal in the 1-0 loss at Boston University on Dec. 8.
Norman has been penciled in to play center in Florida, but the loss of Pryor will see him move back to defense, according to Whitehead.
Sophomore Jake Rutt, considered the team’s best defenseman by Whitehead, missed the BU game with flu-like symptoms and is healthy.
And freshman right wing Ryan Lomberg will be back after serving a three-game suspension for a violation of team rules.
“We’ve got a clean slate and we’ve gotten guys back who have been out. This gives us a chance to go out on the road and make some noise. We’re looking forward to it,” said Whitehead.
All four Florida College Classic teams made the NCAA Tournament a year ago with Minnesota-Duluth ousting Maine 5-2 in the first round. Ferris State eliminated Cornell 2-1 in the quarterfinals after Cornell had topped Michigan 3-2 in overtime in the first round.
Minnesota-Duluth lost in the quarterfinals to eventual national champion Boston College 4-0, while Ferris State went all the way to the national title game, where it lost to BC 4-1.
Ferris State reached the final by sandwiching wins over Denver 2-1 and Union College 3-1 around the one over Cornell.
The four teams were a combined 93-45-21 in 2011-2012.
But ECAC member Cornell enters the tournament as the only team with a winning record at 6-3-2. CCHA team Ferris State is 7-7-3 and Minnesota-Duluth of the WCHA is 7-8-3.
Maine is 1-7-2 in Hockey East and is three points behind UMass Lowell and Northeastern, who are tied for eighth, and five behind Merrimack and UMass, who are tied for sixth.
Eight of the 10 teams make the Hockey East playoffs.
Among its remaining 17 league games, Maine still has three games apiece left with Merrimack and Northeastern, two at UMass and one at home with UMass Lowell.