by Matthew Conyers/CHN Reporter
ROCHESTER, N.Y. This one goes out to all the disbelievers, critics and fan forum geeks out there: Can you please shut up now?
Or at least pipe down until you have an argument worth listening to.
On Saturday, one of the Internet and college hockey's biggest whipping boys — Maine head coach Tim Whitehead — proved once again why he is easily one of the most underrated coaching talents in the game.
Aided by a determined senior class and a goalie bent on getting some home cooking, Whitehead earned his fourth trip to the Frozen Four in six years at one of the most highly scrutinized positions in college hockey.
"That's the biggest joke," said senior Keith Johnson. "In six years at Maine he's been to four Frozen Fours, I don't know what other numbers you need. Every year he proves the critics wrong."
For Whitehead, the berth, the team's second straight, was extra sweet given how the Black Bears were all but counted out a little less than two weeks ago. With Maine just barely making the tournament and reeling — losers of four straight and six of their last eight — Whitehead orchestrated arguably his best turnaround yet. Using two masterful performances against St. Cloud State and now UMass-Amherst, the Black Bears are just two games away from finally grasping that elusive third national championship and shaking that Phil Mickelson monkey off Timmy's back.
"I'm proud that these guys have been so coachable over the last couple of weeks and been so focused in helping each other improve," said a clearly pumped up Whitehead after the game. "It's been a lot of fun."
Having already lost the National Championship twice — in heartbreaking fashion each time — and a loss to eventual champion Wisconsin last year in the semifinals, Whitehead is ready to bring home some hardware.
"I think the big thing is if we keep getting those opportunities each year, hopefully something good will happen for this group," said Whitehead. "But you have to earn it and they understand it. They understand how tough it is to even get there, let alone win, so they are prepared to pay the price to get there and win it."
It is this attitude that embodies Whitehead only moments after winning another East Regional as an underdog.
"We are going in with a lot of purpose and that's the way it should be," said Whitehead. "If you're going to pour your heart and soul into these events then why not go for it and that is how we always act it. We like to set the bar high for ourselves and try to achieve something special every year and if not we've fought to the last whistle to try and do it."
Whether or not a trophy in St. Louis next week is enough to quiet the disbelievers, Whitehead's players don't care. They laugh and scoff at the idea. Heck, some of them won't even listen to it.
"I've been with him since almost day one for him, obviously I have a 100-plus wins, three out of four Frozen Fours — I mean what more can you say about him?" said senior Michel Leveille.
"You got to look at the numbers, every team has been pretty successful," said senior Mike Hamilton. "That's no accident. People might not believe him all the time and look at him and go 'What's he doing here and what's he doing here?' But ultimately he knows best. In the end, he proves it. In the end, we're always right there."
It is these seniors that are so quick to defend Whitehead and his coaching style, that Whitehead stands up for so much.
"I'm just very proud of the seniors," said Whitehead. "It's a great group of people. They've really persevered through a lot of adverse situations and found a way to get the team back on track and advance to the Frozen Four. They really lead the way this week."
The seniors aren't the only ones who persevere. The players are quick to note Whiteheads refusal to surrender and give up on his game plan.
"He just sticks with his guns," said Hamilton. "He has the same policy throughout the whole year, the same systems. He reiterates facts; he just tries to get everything into our heads so it's just second nature. That's been the key for us: playing our own way and sticking to our guns."
So why all the critiquing from the fans when the Black Bears lose two in Hockey East or worse a few against BC? Defenseman Mike Lundin has an answer to that.
"I think he sometimes gets that grief just because he is such a nice guy," said Lundin. "You don't see a ton of head coaches out there that are so friendly like that."
Yeah, that makes lots of sense. Criticize a guy cause he is too nice. For some reason, one has to believe, the Black Bears will be laughing at that all the way to St. Louis.
"Just look at where he's gotten us,' said Lundin. "It doesn't matter what the skill level is or if key guys leave, he brings us back there. There are plenty of teams out there with the same skill or more skill that haven't been able to beat us. He keeps us together. He figures out what is wrong with us and gets us ready at the right top."