ORONO — Early this season, Simon Butala employed the services of search engine Google.

In October, after the University of Maine hockey team’s win over Alaska-Anchorage, Black Bears Coach Red Gendron described the sophomore defenseman as “rock-ribbed.” Butala was hardly alone in that he’d never heard the phrase before.

“That was the first time I ever heard that. I actually looked it up to see exactly what it meant (Merriam-Webster defines “rock-ribbed” as “firm and inflexible.”),” Butala said Wednesday after 15th-ranked Maine wrapped up practice at Alfond Arena, where they will host No. 18 Providence College in the regular-season finale on Friday night. It’s a contest with huge implications for Maine.

A win coupled with a Connecticut loss at UMass-Lowell the same night would give Maine fourth place in the Hockey East standings, allowing the Black Bears to host a league quarterfinal series for the first time since 2011. A loss to a Providence team that is 20-1-1 in its last 22 games against Maine, including last weekend’s 3-2 win in Rhode Island, and the Black Bears could tumble as low as seventh in the final standings.

Earning home ice in the postseason is especially critical for Maine’s NCAA tournament hopes later this month. The Black Bears are 12-1-3 at home this season, 5-10-2 on the road.

Gendron likes his team’s focus heading into such a crucial showdown with the Friars.

“Our team is sharp,” Gendron said. “Everybody knows what’s at stake in the game, it’s that simple. We just try to focus on what we have to do, and that’s it.”

Maine (17-11-5 overall) boasts one of the most prolific scoring lines in the nation with the senior trio of Mitchell Fossier, Tim Doherty and Patrick Shea. Fossier sits tied for fourth in scoring in the country with 41 points and third overall with 32 assists and Doherty’s 14 goals tie him for the team lead with junior Eduards Tralmaks. Junior netminder Jeremy Swayman, a fourth-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins in 2017, is fifth in the nation with a .937 save percentage to go along with a career-low 2.13 goals-against average.

The Black Bears, though, aren’t as one-dimensional a group as they were at this time last year. Eight players have registered at least 10 points this season and nine players have at least four goals through 33 games.

“We’re a team,” Gendron said. “It’s not just Jeremy. It’s a whole lot of guys producing, and it’s the leadership on the team that’s gotten us this far. That being said, there’s much more work to do. Nobody’s satisfied around here. We need to keep going.”

Generously listed at 5-foot-8, sophomore Adam Dawe (9-11-20 totals) was a spark plug when inserted into Maine’s lineup last winter before a concussion in a game against Northeastern derailed his season. He ended up appearing in only 17 of the team’s 36 games — none after Jan. 12. With nine goals this season, including a team-high six on the power play, Dawe has provided exactly the type of secondary scoring Maine desperately needed.

Dawe’s first five goals this season came with the man-advantage, prompting Gendron into some gentle needling.

“That week before Merrimack (on Jan. 31), I needed him to sign a form for me. He said, ‘It’s going to cost you two even-strength goals,’ and that Friday night I just ended up getting the two even-strength goals,” said Dawe, who has skated with Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup and Ben Poisson through the second half of the season. “Our line has gotten together a few times and said we’ve got to get going. We had a lot of meetings between the three of us and we’ve built some chemistry we didn’t think we had.

“We’re all buying in. We bought in early. We were successful at the start of the season, and I think that’s what the key was.”

With five new faces on the blue line this season, Butala took on a role more significant than that of a typical sophomore. The 6-2, 190-pounder appeared in all 36 of the team’s games as a freshman, immediately making him the team’s most experienced defenseman.

Last season’s learning curve was an important step in his development, he said.

“If I’m playing well, I feel like I’m a guy that makes the simple play and I’m hard to play against,” Butala said. “I want to be the hardest player to play against. I want guys on the other team, when they’re trying to take their pregame nap, just be thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to play against Butala tonight.’ I want them to dread playing against me. That’s kind of the game that I play — simple, get my shots through, defense first and be a defenseman you can always rely on.”

Having a “rock-ribbed” defenseman to help anchor a green corps in front of Swayman has helped Maine have something to play for in the season’s final weekend.


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