The University of Maine men’s hockey team was picked to finish eighth in the Hockey East preseason coaches poll. The Black Bears earned the fourth spot and host fifth-seeded Connecticut in a quarterfinal series this weekend.
The primary reason for UMaine’s unexpected success is junior goalie Jeremy Swayman. His 48-save performance in a 1-0 win over Providence College last Friday ranks among the best ever by a UMaine goalie.
Among the others was Jimmy Howard’s 63-save outing in the 2-1 triple-overtime victory over the University of Massachusetts in the 2004 Hockey East championship game.
Swayman stopped two breakaways among his 18 Grade-A (high-percentage) saves.
Providence College coach Nate Leaman called it the best goaltending performance he has seen all year and said he will vote for Swayman as the league’s best goalie.
During a Tuesday Hockey East conference call, UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh said Swayman should be the league Player of the Year.
“He has been that good,” Cavanaugh said.
Swayman has started 33 of 34 games and has held opponents to two goals or less in 22 of those. He has allowed one or fewer goals 11 times and has three shutouts in his last five starts.
His 1,099 saves lead Division I and he has shattered the previous school record set by Martin Ouellete, who made 926 saves during the 2013-2014 season.
Swayman, a former Hockey East All-Rookie and third-team selection, has the nation’s second-best save percentage (.939).
UMaine head coach Red Gendron said Swayman has earned his success.
“He has improved his game as time has gone on,” Gendron said. “He is quite mature in terms of his focus and his attention to detail.
“His work habits, how he takes care of himself, the time he spends stretching and regenerating his body [are exemplary],” he said.
Swayman owns the school record for career saves (3,130) and minutes played (5,906:46). His career .927 save percentage is second only to Howard (.931), a veteran of 543 NHL games.
Swayman’s breakout season has come playing behind an inexperienced defense corps on which nobody had logged more than 46 career games coming into the season.
Minimizing his movement has enabled him to shave nearly a goal off his GAA from last season (2.07 compared to 2.77). He has made difficult saves look easy with his positional play.
That was best exhibited early in the third period of the Providence victory when he stopped three point-blank shots in rapid succession. In previous seasons, Swayman was a little too hyper and left him susceptible to rebounds.
UMaine goalie coach Alfie Michaud said Swayman’s maturity has come through playing a lot of minutes and getting comfortable with the league over three seasons.
“He puts in the work. He wants to get better every day. The kids respect him, they know how hard he works and they go to war for him,” Michaud said.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound native of Anchorage, Alaska, also has significantly improved his puck-handling skills. Swayman has set up some scoring chances by catching opponents in line changes and firing the puck to a teammate on the far blue line.
That skill moving the puck is one demonstrated by former Black Bears Scott King, Garth Snow and Ben Bishop.
“In this day and age, the skaters are so fast, goalies move the pucks to prevent their defensemen from getting walloped,” said Michaud, who backstopped UMaine to the 1999 NCAA title.
Swayman is a fourth-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins and will join the likes of former Black Bears Howard, Bishop, Snow, Mike Dunham, Scott Darling, Matt DelGuidice, Michaud, King and Matt Yeats as an NHL goaltender some day.
The Bruins feature one of the best goaltending tandems in the NHL in Tuuka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, but they are 33 and 34, respectively.
So UMaine fans can expect Swayman to pass up his senior year and begin his pro career after this season ends.
Swayman stresses that he couldn’t have had the season he has had without his teammates and he is right.
Talent-wise, UMaine is not a top-four Hockey East team, but the Bears have done an impressive job playing a physical style. The defense has exceeded expectations by keeping things simple, using the boards and the glass to clear the puck out of the defensive zone and clearing rebounds.
The forwards have also been conscientious defensively despite an offense that, while inconsistent overall, has at least nine goals from each of its three top lines. That is a better balance than in recent seasons.
It has also been a resilient team with strong leadership.