When the University of Maine men’s hockey team swept archrival New Hampshire on Nov. 15 and 16 in front of a combined nearly 10,000 fans at a lively Alfond Arena, it harkened back to the glory days when the Black Bears were competing for national championships.
The Black Bears were suddenly 7-3-2 despite having an inexperienced defense corps and optimism was permeating the program.
But following that weekend was a string of seven straight road games and the Black Bears went 1-5-1 to limp into the break at 8-8-3. Four of those losses came in Hockey East games, so UMaine is now 4-6-2 in league play.
The optimism has been dashed.
The last time UMaine advanced past the Hockey East quarterfinals was 2012 when it lost to Boston College in the conference championship game. It was also the Black Bears’ last NCAA tournament appearance.
Going into the semester break, UMaine is in a sixth-place tie with Boston College and Connecticut, but Boston College has played five fewer league games, and UConn has played two fewer. UNH is next, two points back, but has three games in hand on UMaine.
The primary reason for UMaine’s recent skid has has been a lack of goal production, which has been a common theme in head coach Red Gendron’s seven seasons with the program.
With the exception of the 2017-18 season, during which the Black Bears finished tied for 17th among 60 Division I schools in goals per game (3.08), UMaine has never finished higher than 25th in that category. UMaine’s average standing has been 33rd.
This year’s team mustered only one goal in each of its past four games and just one of those came in an even-strength situation. The other three were power-play goals.
Many teams go through scoring droughts but UMaine’s has been extensive. The Black Bears have scored scored two goals or fewer in 12 of their 19 games.
Excluding empty-net goals, UMaine has scored only 27 even-strength goals in 19 games. The power play has tallied 15 goals, and there was a short-handed goal.
UMaine scored just 22 goals in its 12 Hockey East games, eight on the power play. One was an empty-netter.
UMaine’s 2.37 goals per game rank it 41st in the country.
Another problem is there has been insufficient scoring balance. The six players on the top two lines have scored 36 of UMaine’s 45 goals (80 percent).
The defensemen have scored only three, which leaves a total of six goals being scored by the third and fourth lines.
The bottom line is, this UMaine team isn’t as talented as most of the teams in Hockey East. Simple as that.
Goal scoring requires skill and that is not a UMaine strength.
The goaltender in hockey is one of the most influential players in any sport. UMaine’s Jeremy Swayman was a third-team, all-conference selection last season, but the league’s coaches still picked the Black Bears to finish eighth in the preseason poll.
They were aware UMaine also faced a major challenge in replacing five of its seven regular defensemen.
In their defense, the Black Bears have been swept by the defending Hockey East tournament champion Northeastern and a Massachusetts team that was the 2019 NCAA runner-up. And all four games were on the road.
UMass is 8-1-1 at home this season and Northeastern is 5-1-1.
Looking ahead to the second half of the season, UMaine has eight of its final 12 league games at home, where the Black Bears are 5-0-1. Six of those games are against teams below them in the standings, two-game series with Merrimack, UConn and Vermont. The Black Bears also have single games with Northeastern and Providence.
Their road games are against preseason favorite Boston College (2), UConn (1) and Providence (1).
The Black Bears should be able to muster an eighth-place finish and earn a Hockey East playoff spot based on the favorable second-half schedule, Swayman’s goaltending, the maturation of the defense and the offensive production from Mitch Fossier (3 goals, 17 assists), Tim Doherty (7 & 11), Eduards Tralmaks (9 & 5) and Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup (9 & 2).
One strength for the Black Bears has been their special-teams play. They have the nation’s 11th best penalty-killing percentage (87.1), and the power play is 27th (19.2), including goals in seven of its past nine contests.
But UMaine must receive supplemental scoring from its defense corps and third- and fourth-liners. The Bears will need to keep things simple: Put the puck on net and attack the net front. They are going to have to score “ugly” goals.
Swayman has allowed 23 goals over the past seven games, but 17 came against Northeastern and UMass. He needs to bounce back and has been able to do in the past.
However, until the Black Beas start scoring goals consistently, his margin for error will be thin and any “soft” goal could be decisive.