This weekend, students at the University of Maine who returned to classes Monday after a holiday break will have a chance to join the pep band in the north end of Alfond Arena.
What will they see down on the ice? The same Black Bear men’s hockey team that entered the break with a winless record at home?
Kyle Williams doesn’t think so.
“This is definitely a different Maine team,” said Williams, a freshman defenseman from Bowdoinham. “Except for the last game (a 6-0 loss to Merrimack in North Andover, Mass.), we are a much different team. There’s a lot of confidence. We always knew we had the ability to compete in this league. It was just a matter of actually getting it done.”
For Maine, it’s still a matter of getting it done. The Black Bears (5-13-3 overall, 1-8-3 Hockey East) host Merrimack (8-9-4, 6-5-1) Friday and Saturday night in Orono, still looking for a second conference victory.
After a season-best three-game winning streak, the Black Bears are now riding a three-game winless streak, with a tie at Northeastern sandwiched between losses to Mercyhurst and Merrimack.
Friday night marks the 10th game of the season at Alfond, where the Black Bears are 0-7-2. Only eight home games remain, so Maine would have to run the table to avoid a losing record in Orono for the first time since the 2008-09 squad went 7-8-3.
More pressing — and achievable — is climbing from 10th in Hockey East to eighth to qualify for the playoffs in mid-March.
With 15 conference games remaining, Maine trails ninth-place Northeastern by three points and eighth-place UMass by four.
“In the beginning of the season, we were finding ourselves in games that we should have won, one- or two-goal games that we should have won, and we couldn’t pull it out,” Williams said. “Now that it’s the second half and we’ve had a little bit of a breather, we’re going to find ourselves winning a couple games here.”
One reason for Maine’s struggles has been its reliance on freshmen for much of the scoring load. A year ago, a freshman class of five chipped in 4.9 percent of the offense and 6.0 percent of goals (eight of 133) for a team that reached the Hockey East championship series and the NCAA tournament.
This year a freshman class that jumped from five to eight skaters has accounted for 35.6 percent of the offense and 34.4 percent of goals (11 of 32). The last time an incoming class shouldered so much of the scoring load was that same 2008-09 season when Gustav Nyquist, Brian Flynn, Spencer Abbott, Will O’Neill and Ryan Hegarty combined for 39.7 percent of the offense.
“We were expecting them to play quite a bit, but they’ve played even more than we thought because of all the injuries,” said Coach Tim Whitehead of his freshmen. “As a result, they’ve adjusted quicker. They don’t feel like freshmen anymore.”
Among freshmen, Ryan Lomberg leads the way with three goals, followed by Devin Shore and Ben Hutton with two each. Steven Swavely, Will Merchant, Bill Norman and Williams have one apiece.
“It’s been a little bit of a challenge,” Williams said of the transition from junior hockey to the collegiate level. “It’s definitely a different pace. Guys are a lot bigger, a lot stronger and a lot faster.”
After seeing action in only two of Maine’s first 10 games, Williams got a chance against the other school that recruited him, UMass-Lowell, and scored the game-winning goal for Maine’s only Hockey East victory to date.
“Hopefully that will change this weekend,” said Williams, who has been on the blue line in 10 of the past 11 games. “Obviously it’s been a little bit of a struggle this year, but we’re excited about the second half of the year and the next three years as well.”
Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: