By Glenn Jordan
PORTLAND - Perhaps it was the balmy breezes blowing in off the Gulf of Mexico.
Maybe it was the holiday break and the prospect of a calendar-flipping new beginning.
Still another possibility is that gradual progress and improvement -- better penalty-killing, stingier defense, fewer penalty minutes over the previous six games -- finally showed up on the scoreboard.
In any case, the University of Maine men's hockey team walked into the Cumberland County Civic Center for practice Thursday afternoon with a swagger absent since the season began in early October.
"Not confidence, but just that swagger," said junior forward Jon Swavely. "Confidence is the biggest thing that Florida did for us."
The Black Bears are making their annual appearance in Portland Friday night before returning to campus in Orono for a Saturday night game at Alfond Arena. The opponent both nights is Mercyhurst University, an Atlantic Hockey Association team from Erie, Pa. The Lakers haven't played Maine since 2007 and are 0-4-1 all-time against the Black Bears.
Instead of seeing a Maine team that muddled through its first 15 games as the lowest-scoring team in the nation, Mercyhurst will face a confident club fresh off the successful defense of its Florida College Classic championship.
Last week in Estero, Fla., Maine knocked off Minnesota-Duluth 1-0 and then rallied from a three-goal deficit to beat No. 11 Cornell for the title, 6-4.
The record (4-11-2) may still look lousy, but the Black Bears have a little more hop in their step these days.
"To have that confidence and that attitude that we're going to win the game," Swavely said, "that's what if felt like in Florida. That's what we hadn't felt this year yet. Coming into the second half, that's going to be huge."
In the six games before the Florida tournament, Maine had managed to cut in half the number of goals allowed in the previous six games, from 4.0 to 2.0. The percentage of successful penalty kill rose from 77 to 88. Maine's penalty minutes dropped in half.
Still, the Black Bears were 0-6 in the first stretch and only 1-3-2 in the second stretch, even though each of the second half-dozen games was decided by one goal.
"You can talk about progress all you want," said Maine Coach Tim Whitehead, "but until you get results, you don't really have true confidence."
What's more, Maine won the Florida tournament without seniors Joey Diamond, Nick Pryor and Adam Shemansky, who were out with a variety of ailments. True, Swavely returned for the first time since October quadriceps surgery caused him to miss 12 games, and freshman Ryan Lomberg was back after a three-game suspension for violating team rules.
Lomberg scored a short-handed goal against Minnesota-Duluth and added an empty-netter to seal the Cornell victory. Martin Ouellette made 31 saves in the shutout victory, then gave way to freshman Matt Morris after Cornell jumped to a 3-0 first-period lead.
Morris stopped 22 of 23 shots and was named Hockey East Co-Rookie of the Week. He and fellow freshman Devin Shore were named to the all-tourney team in Florida and senior center Kyle Beattie, who had missed six games earlier this season because of two concussions, was named MVP.
"We went down there and we knew it was an opportunity to get a fresh start on the year," Beattie said. "One thing we did in Florida was play a lot more physical. If we're not going to be scoring goals and being a highly offensive team, we're going to have to at least make it really tough for teams to play against us."
Whether that trend will continue now that the Black Bears have returned north remains to be seen. The first clue will come Friday night at the Civic Center.
Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: