ORONO, Maine — University of Maine men’s hockey center Stu Higgins was having his best offensive year last season when a knee injury suffered in an exhibition win over the University of New Brunswick ended his season.
He eventually had surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Higgins has proclaimed his knee 100 percent healthy and said he can’t wait for the opener against, ironically, the University of New Brunswick at 4 p.m. Sunday at Alfond Arena.
Higgins, a senior, has been nursing a bruised foot courtesy of a teammate’s shot in practice but he expects to be back on the ice this week.
“It’s not a problem at all,” he said.
Higgins had four goals and eight assists in 75 games over his first two seasons but had six goals and four assists in 28 games before he got hurt in the second period of the Jan. 21 game. He had scored a goal earlier in the period.
Maine was 11-8-3 at the time of his injury and finished 5-7-1 without him.
“It was real tough watching down the stretch, especially the Notre Dame games, seeing those [late-game] slides,” said Higgins. “I wanted to be out there and be a part of it.”
Watching the three Hockey East playoff games, the 2-0 win over Merrimack and 3-1 and 4-2 losses to Providence, was also tough, he said.
“But it got me more excited for this year. There was definitely extra incentive to get better in the offseason,” said Higgins.
It has already paid off.
“I had better statistics than ever in every weightlifting category. I feel stronger than I ever have in my four years at Maine,” said Higgins.
He began skating “around a month and a half or two months ago.”
“It was an adjustment. Trying to get your skating legs is completely different from working out in the gym,” he said. “But I’m up to speed right now. And my decision-making is right there as well.”
Higgins spent a month back in his native Michigan but returned to Maine during the summer to work out under the watchful eyes of strength and conditioning coach Matt Murray and athletic trainer Paul Culina.
“I felt that was my best option and it worked out real well,” said Higgins, who is an alternate captain and one of the team’s top penalty-killers.
Maine coach Red Gendron called him a “terrific player and leader.
“He’s a reliable player. He’s solid offensively and defensively,” said Gendron. “He’s also smart.”
Higgins is hoping to have a “better offensive season.
“I want to pick up where I left off last year. Hopefully, I’ll work my way into the lineup and earn a power-play spot. I’m more concerned right now with playing the right way. I want to start off doing the small things like I’ve usually done throughout my career,” said the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Higgins.
He is optimistic about the season even though the Black Bears were picked to finish ninth in the Hockey East preseason coaches poll and sixth in the media poll.
“I’m expecting big things. As far as the polls go, they’re meaningless to us but you have to earn respect and that’s what we intend on doing,” said Higgins.
He said they have added some talented freshmen and there is plenty of size in the first-year class.
“That’s something we needed. People will notice a difference right away,” he said.
The biggest question mark will be in goal where there is very little experience.
Martin Ouellette and Dan Sullivan have graduated.
Junior Matt Morris played in six games as a freshman but missed all of last season due to hip surgery. Nik Nugnes and Sean Romeo are freshmen. Nugnes came to Maine for the second semester and practiced with the team last year although he didn’t get into any games.
“I think our goaltending is going to be strong. They all look really good,” said Higgins. “They’re all very competitive and that’s something you can’t really teach. They don’t give up on plays.”