March 10, 2013

Steve Solloway: As Black Bears emerge from hibernation, look out!

DURHAM, N.H. - Playing a game it finally didn't need to win, the University of Maine hockey team almost did. Your Black Bears came from behind to tie New Hampshire Saturday on the last weekend of the Hockey East regular season.

The final score was 4-4, in overtime. Go figure. Get a grip on your feelings about the team that is still the state's most-watched franchise, flaws and all. Want another definition of a love-hate relationship? This is it.

Just when you want to forget about Maine hockey because it disappoints more than it cheers over the past 10 years, it gives you back-to-back games like these. Friday night, Maine beat New Hampshire 4-3, giving Coach Tim Whitehead's boys the necessary points to play in the Hockey East quarterfinals.

Then the 4-4 tie without senior captain Joey Diamond. He cooled his temper, first in the penalty box and then alone in the Maine locker room. He had barked at the ref for a previous penalty and was sent off with a 10-minute misconduct infraction with less than three minutes left in the third period.

"It was like we lost him to an injury," said Adam Shemansky. "We didn't have him. Everyone had to step up."

Maine did. The sight of Diamond being escorted off the ice before the start of overtime galvanized the partisan crowd of New Hampshire fans at the Whittemore Center. In these parts Diamond is public enemy No. 1. His second of two goals tied the score at 3 earlier in the period.

He is the team's best scorer. He's also the team catalyst and agitator. He's got to stay on the right side of the law. Saturday, his teammates overcame his loss of discipline.

Diamond's linemates are freshmen Ryan Lomberg and Devin Shore. Five other freshmen and a red-shirt freshman start. "They're not freshmen anymore," said Shemansky. "You can't call them that."

Shemansky is a senior forward. At 5-foot-7, 165 pounds he plays and thinks big. He scored Maine's second goal in the second period, cutting the UNH lead to 3-2 and putting what had been a relaxed crowd on edge.

"We wanted to go out with a win and we got a tie," said Shemansky, his face not showing an emotion before he got on the team bus. "We got three points (in the Hockey East standings) this weekend. I don't think anyone expected that.

"I know I haven't won here." That's when he let a very small smile appear. His team is 6-13-8 in Hockey East but this weekend Maine didn't lose to a good opponent and that makes a difference.

That's why Whitehead started Martin Ouellette in goal for the second straight game. A victory wouldn't really improve Maine's lot in the Hockey East tournament. Why not start fellow junior Dan Sullivan or freshman Matt Morris in net for the experience? Why not rest a few others who are playing through injuries?

"I couldn't do that," said Whitehead. "Not against a rival. We had to go all-in. This team wants to keep playing. They've really come together. They're learning how to win."

The last time Maine won consecutive games was back on the last weekend of January at Boston College. The conference quarterfinals are best-of-three series but afterward you must win back-to-back games to advance.

No, the tie wasn't satisfying to anyone wearing Maine blue and white. Not when winning both weekend games at the Whittemore Center was so within its grasp.

That's why you shake your head. That Maine would not lose this weekend was unthinkable. So many have come to expect so little from the program that used to be the gold standard in Hockey East.

Maybe New Hampshire was too complacent or too confident, although with a 13-8-5 Hockey East record they're not a dominant team. New Hampshire needed to win Saturday to strengthen its chances for the home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

That's why the disappointment of tying the game was that much thicker for UNH and its fans. And why the tie could put a small smile on Maine faces.

You take your large or small victories where you find them.

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

 

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