ORONO — Before the University of Maine hockey team came to Portland on Nov. 26, it was watching its season sink to the tune of a 3-6-2 record (3-5-1 in Hockey East).

Besides requiring a lot of improvement, Maine needed some positive motivation. Forget the one-game-at-a-time approach. The Black Bears needed to see more progress than that.
How about four-games-at-a-time?

“We’re trying to look at the season in four-game blocks,” Maine Coach Tim Whitehead said. “If we were to look (at the entire schedule), we’d be thinking that ‘Wow we’ve dug ourselves a hole.’
“We took that four-game block before Christmas (starting with the Clarkson win in Portland) and won three out of four.

“Now we’re looking at this four-game block. We’ve won two so far.”

Maine is coming off the Florida College Classic, where it beat Clarkson again 6-1 and Massachusetts, 5-2.

Maine is 8-7-2, 5-6-1, entering a Hockey East game tonight against Vermont (4-13-1, 1-9-1) in the Alfond Arena.

The Black Bears will finish this four-game block Saturday night with their hyped Fenway Park game with New Hampshire.

According to Whitehead, his team wants to win three games of every “block,” with a fourth win a bonus.

Reaching that target could have Maine finishing with 21 wins and eyeing its first NCAA tournament berth since the 2007 Frozen Four.

But winning 3 of 4 will require quite an effort. Maine is 0-5 against the top four teams in the league, including Merrimack, Boston College and Boston University.

After the Fenway Park game, Maine’s next four-game block features two games at Merrimack and two at home against Boston College.

The next “block” begins with two games at BU.

“We feel we can play with anybody, but we also know we have a slim margin for error,” Whitehead said. “The BU game showed that.”

On Dec. 10, Maine led the Terriers 1-0 before allowing a goal in the second period and four in the third.

“We played pretty good for two periods and came out flat in the third,” said junior forward Joey Diamond, who is tied for the team lead with 11 goals. “That woke us up.”

Or, as junior forward Adam Shemansky said, “That game was still on our minds (in Florida).”

Whitehead said the BU loss “might have been a blessing in disguise because it really reminded the guys that we have a long way to go, and they trained really hard over Christmas. (In Florida), we were able to sustain our speed and our physical play throughout the tournament.” Senior forward Brian Flynn noticed the improvement.

“We played really well start to finish,” he said. “Nice to begin the second half that way.

“We’re on a good stretch here. Our special teams have been winning games. We’re playing better defensively, and we’re getting great goaltending from Sully.”

Sophomore goalie Dan Sullivan’s emergence is key, according to Whitehead.

“This year, we’re not as talented as we were the last two years, but our goaltending is better,” Whitehead said. “That’s given us a lot of confidence.

“We’re excited about this team. We feel the team has been through a lot of adversity over the last couple of years. They’re coming off two winning seasons, but we want more.

“We’re shooting for the (NCAA) tournament. We feel that, despite the start, we can do it.”

MAINE’S GOALIE SITUATION is getting better, according to Whitehead, as Sullivan and backup Martin Ouellette improve. The Black Bears have also signed prized goalie recruit Matt Morris to a letter of intent.

Morris, 18, plays for the Dubuque (Iowa) Fighting Saints junior team, coached by former Maine standout Jim Montgomery. (The Saints’ goalie consultant is former Maine assistant Grant Standbrook.)
 Morris has a 1.85 goals-against average.

“Our goalies have improved dramatically,” Whitehead said. “They’re only sophomores.”

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: KevinThomasPPH