Entering this season, you’d be hard-pressed to find a defense corps among the 60 NCAA Division I hockey teams with less experience than at the University of Maine.
The eight defensemen who have seen duty on the blue line this year averaged just 16 career games each coming into the campaign.
Five of UMaine’s seven regular defensemen from last year’s team either graduated or left early to sign a pro contract. They averaged 103 career games apiece.
But this season’s unseasoned defense corps has been a pleasant surprise as the Black Bears enter this weekend’s road series against 11th-ranked Massachusetts with a 2.31 goals-against average, 17th-best in the country.
UMaine was ranked between 29th and 52nd in team defense at the end of the previous five seasons, surrendering 3.18 goals per game during that span.
The most experienced defenseman back is junior J.D. Greenway, who played in 46 games at the University of Wisconsin during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons before playing in the United States (Junior) Hockey League last season
Simon Butala was next with the 36 games he appeared in as a freshman last season. Junior Veli-Matti Tiuraniemi had 32 games under his belt but just six last year due to ankle and wrist injuries.
Sophomore Jakub Sirota joined the team for the second semester a year ago and appeared in 18 games; junior Cam Spicer played in only four games during his first two seasons due to injuries; and Adrien Bisson, Levi Kleiboer and Dawson Bruneski are freshmen.
“The bottom line is they may be young, but they’re good players and they’re very coachable,” UMaine coach Red Gendron said. “They’ve done a real good job managing details.”
Butala said the group’s cohesion has been important to its success.
“We’ve had the same defense pairs all season, and we’re all pretty comfortable with each other,” he said. “And the new guys are great guys who are easy to get along with and that translates onto the ice.”
Senior right wing and captain Mitch Fossier admitted there were a lot of question marks on defense coming into the season.
“They didn’t have a veteran leader back there so they all had to lean on each other and depend on each other. They have figured it out together and done an unbelievable job,” he said.
Fossier and the defensemen also recognize they benefit from having junior Jeremy Swayman in goal. Swayman has the 10th-best save percentage (.938) and 20th-best goals-against average (2.11) in the country.
“He has been our best player, without a doubt,” Fossier said. “He makes saves he shouldn’t make.”
Gendron added that another vital component to the defensive success is the team’s 88.2 percent success rate on the penalty kill, 11th-best nationally.
“All of them have answered the bell,” Swayman said. “When their name has been called, they have performed. They have played our system to a tee. Taking pride in [your play] in the defensive zone is a big thing, and they have done a great job with that. They have made my job a hell of a lot easier.”