LOWELL, Mass. – It was a painful way to end a season — losing in overtime with one of your senior captains in the locker room after a second-period disqualification — but the University of Maine men’s hockey team returned to Orono with heads held high.
The eighth-seeded Black Bears lost 4-2 Thursday and 2-1 in overtime Friday to top-seeded UMass-Lowell at the Tsongas Center in the quarterfinals of the Hockey East tournament. They finished with a losing record (11-19-8) for only the third time in Tim Whitehead’s 12 seasons as head coach.
UMass-Lowell, ranked sixth in the country, advanced to next weekend’s conference semifinals in Boston, and appears assured of a berth in the 16-team NCAA tournament as well.
Whitehead was behind the bench in Lowell for five seasons before coming to Maine, and both coached and later hired as an assistant Norm Bazin, who last winter engineered the biggest turnaround by a first-year head coach in NCAA Division I hockey history as the River Hawks went from 25 losses to 24 wins.
Maine held leads in both quarterfinal games against Lowell, but couldn’t hang on against a clearly superior opponent.
“I respect their team greatly,” Bazin said. “I thought they competed very hard. They should be commended for such a great effort.”
That Maine was even part of the tournament was something of a surprise, considering the way the Black Bears stumbled through a 2-11-2 start as they tried to break in nine freshmen and replace the scoring provided by the likes of Spencer Abbott, Brian Flynn, Matt Mangene (who turned pro early) and Will O’Neill.
At 77 total goals, they fell far short of last year’s prolific output of 133. Then again, they dealt with a rash of injuries and illnesses that cost them the equivalent of 121 player-games. Last season, that number was five.
Inside Alfond Arena, where Maine usually enjoys one of the biggest home-ice advantages anywhere, the Black Bears won only twice in 17 opportunities.
“We faced a lot of adversity this year, on and off the ice,” Whitehead said. “What we’re most proud of with this group is that they never quit on each other. They kept fighting.”
Devin Shore finished with six goals and 20 assists to become the first Maine freshman to lead the team in scoring since Gustav Nyquist in 2008-09. Fellow freshmen Ben Hutton (4-11-15), Steven Swavely (6-8-14) and Ryan Lomberg (7-7-14) joined Shore among the team’s top five point-getters.
Goalie Matt Morris, wing Will Merchant and defensemen Bill Norman, Conor Riley and Kyle Williams also contributed in their first year of collegiate action.
“Boy, they came a long way since the start of the year,” Whitehead said. “It wasn’t an easy ride. Had it come easy, I think we would have missed out on some very important life lessons. Certainly, we learned a lot this year.”
The pivotal moment came at a holiday tournament in Florida, when Maine — playing without leading playmaker Joey Diamond, who was injured — first beat Minnesota-Duluth 1-0 and then took the title 6-4 against Cornell, then ranked 11th in the country, after falling behind by three goals.
Maine’s only other weekend sweep came in late January, when the Black Bears ended a nine-game losing streak at Conte Forum and beat then-No. 3 Boston College 4-1 and 3-1.
Scoring continued to be a challenge. Not once in Hockey East action did they exceed four goals. Even so, they stayed competitive with bend-but-don’t-break defense backboned by junior goaltender Martin Ouellette, who took over from incumbent Dan Sullivan in early November.
They went 9-6-6 after Christmas to climb from 10th and last in Hockey East to a tie for seventh with Vermont and a berth in the eight-team conference tournament. Among Hockey East teams, only Lowell had a better second half.
“These guys go through so much, they really are a family,” Whitehead said. “For them to stick with each other with all their faults — with all our faults — and to improve as they did, to genuinely improve, and have the second-best record in the league since Christmas, we’re very proud of them. It bodes very well for the future.”
Whitehead is under contract with the university through the 2013-14 season, at an annual salary of $190,000. After taking over from Shawn Walsh — who led the Black Bears to national titles in 1993 and 1999 — Whitehead guided Maine to four Frozen Four appearances and two championship games, all in his first six years in Orono. Over the past six seasons, Maine has played in one NCAA tournament game, a first-round loss to Minnesota-Duluth last March.
Whitehead will bid adieu to captains Mike Cornell, Mark Nemec and Diamond along with fellow seniors Kyle Beattie, Adam Shemansky, Nick Pryor and Klas Leidermark.
Diamond departs with the dubious distinction of Maine’s most penalized player, and by more than 100 minutes than anyone else in school history. He accumulated 160 penalties over four years worth 467 minutes — nearly eight hours — in the penalty box.
After being whistled for three minors Thursday night against Lowell, Diamond received a minor, two majors and a disqualification Friday. As the team’s leading goal scorer with 14, he was sorely missed in the third period and overtime.
“He’s part of our family and we stuck with him and I feel for him,” Whitehead said. “We’ve worked very hard with him. He has come a long way. I know it didn’t look like it (Friday night), but he has. And he’ll bounce back from this.”
Will the Black Bears bounce back into upper echelon of Hockey East and the national playoff picture next winter? Only time will tell.
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: