Back in late October and early November, when the University of Maine men’s hockey team was struggling to score a goal, much less win a game, Coach Tim Whitehead resisted the temptation to skip a weight-training session or alter his practices in hopes of a quick-fix solution.
“We were determined not to sacrifice development for one or two victories early on,” Whitehead said. “We knew it would be important for our long-term development.”
It took a few months, but all the skill sessions, competitive practice situations, weight training and game experience began to pay off. The Black Bears kicked into gear in late January and made a late stretch drive out of the Hockey East cellar and into the conference tournament.
They earned the eighth seed and face top-seeded UMass-Lowell (22-10-2 overall, 16-9-2 Hockey East) in a best-of-three quarterfinal series at Tsongas Arena beginning Thursday night and continuing Friday night. A decisive third game, if necessary, would be played Sunday at 4 p.m.
“We’re playing our best hockey of the year and we seem to play well on the road,” Whitehead said. “We’re looking forward to this challenge.”
Maine (11-17-8, 7-12-8) only won twice all season at Alfond Arena, but one of those was a 4-3 overtime victory against Lowell on Feb. 3. The teams met at Tsongas Arena in mid- November and split a pair of one-goal games, with the River Hawks winning 2-1 the first night and Maine ending a seven-game losing streak the following night, 4-3.
Ranked sixth in the nation in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls, Lowell finished the season with a 22-10-2 record that included winning streaks of nine and seven games after a 4-7-1 start.
“They don’t really have any glaring weaknesses,” said Whitehead of Lowell, where he spent a decade behind the bench, the last five years as head coach. “They have two strong goalies, a good defensive corps and solid forwards, and a lot of depth at all three positions.”
Lowell Coach Norm Bazin, who both played for and was an assistant to Whitehead, engineered the largest turnaround by a first-year coach in NCAA Division I hockey history last season. The River Hawks went 24-13-1 and reached the NCAA East Regional finals one year after a dismal 5-25-4 season.
“I’m very proud of him and very excited for him and the university,” Whitehead said. “It’s going to be bittersweet. I kind of wish we had a different opponent in the first round.”
Not surprisingly, the River Hawks and Black Bears share a belief in team defense and fundamentals.
“They work hard, they block a lot of shots and they stick to their systems,” said Maine senior forward Kyle Beattie. “They play very similar to the way we do.”
Maine swept the season series when Beattie was a sophomore, but Lowell took two of three last season. One factor in this series could be the play of Lowell freshman goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who is 14-2-0 this season and is ranked second in the nation with a 1.49 goals- against average.
The Black Bears haven’t seen him yet. They faced junior Doug Carr three times.
“That’s a major obstacle, particularly for a young team like us that’s had trouble scoring goals,” Whitehead said. “We’re going to need to solve him in order to win.”
With freshmen Devin Shore, Ben Hutton, Steven Swavely and Ryan Lomberg joining seniors Beattie and Joey Diamond as the team scoring leaders, the Black Bears of late have been taking some pressure off goalie Martin Ouellette. They’ve scored more goals (39-35) over the past 13 games than they managed in the first 23.
“We just want to get to the net and generate second chances,” said senior defenseman Mark Nemec.
“Hopefully, we’ll be there to tuck in the rebounds. As long as we get to the net and make it difficult for their goalie and their defensemen, I don’t think it makes that much of a difference who’s in net.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: