Not a Maine Year
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
This has not been the kind of season Maine is used to.
After losing a pair of overtime games to Boston University last weekend, the Black Bears have lost seven in a row, worsening an already trying season to the point where Maine (8-17-3) is in serious danger of not even qualifying for the Hockey East tournament.
Not counting the official 1993-94 record, when Maine was forced to forfeit numerous games due to multiple NCAA violations, the last time the Black Bears finished so much as under .500 was 1985-86, in Shawn Walsh's second year. Finishing under .500 is virtually guaranteed at this point.
"We are in ninth place and I think that says it all," said Maine coach Tim Whitehead, who has had Maine in the Frozen Four in four of six seasons since taking over for Walsh, including last year. "We have to climb up here and get into the playoffs, and put ourselves in a position where we can look to win the Hockey East tournament if we are going to get into the NCAAs. We have a long way to go as we are not even in the playoffs if the season ended today."
The challenge became more difficult after this past weekend, when a resurgent Boston University and its suddenly-improved netminder Brett Bennett, outplayed Maine and its star goalie Ben Bishop. Maine scored 1:55 into Friday's game, then never again the whole weekend.
Maine did what it wanted to do defensively, but wasn't able to score any goals.
"For a young team, we have been very disciplined," Whitehead said. "We had a couple of exceptions to that, down at UMass two weeks ago, we took too many penalties, but other than that, we have done pretty well with that."
Maine had to deal with a number of players that graduated, but so did a lot of teams. The injuries hit this year too, including the Keenan Hopson and Chris Hahn, who recently returned, and Billy Ryan, who still has not. Ryan, who is out with a hip injury, was expected to carry a big load, but the senior only has four goals in 19 games.
"We would love to get Billy back, but I donít know. He has been out for a while, and has a serious injury so we are not going to push the envelope there and risk a future injury," Whitehead said. "The good news is that he did skate non-contact (last) Monday for the first time, so that was good."
Whitehead knows what he's up against this season, and that there is no magic potion to turn things around. His job is to keep the psyches together so the team doesn't totally crumble, and if necessary, start building for next year.
"There is no glaring deficiency in our game, but a lot of little areas that need to be elevated," Whitehead said. "We are simply not generating enough quality scoring chances and not scoring enough goals when we do get them. We have to continue to work on that. A lot of the areas that we have to improve on are not over-night fixes, unfortunately. In the end, we have to stay determined that we can find a way to win some games down the stretch whether we score a lot of goals or not.
"We have played a lot better and we have improved in a lot of areas, especially special teams, but unfortunately, it really has not shown up on the score sheet on a consistent basis. It is tough for our players to believe that we are improving, and have a chance to make the playoffs, but that is exactly what they have to do."
One bright spot all year has been the play of senior defenseman Bret Tyler, who was named a finalist for the Walter Brown Award, as New England's best American-born college hockey player.
"Bret Tyler is a heck of a hockey player. He is one of the toughest competitors that I have ever worked with," Whitehead said. "This year he has had a lot of different injuries because he plays so hard. He takes hits throughout the entire game to make a play and he will give out a hit.
"Especially with Ryan and Hopson out for such a long stretch, Bret was the only guy back from our 10 power-play guys from last year. He has been the man keeping our team focused from a competitive standpoint. He is just a heck of a hockey player. Having recruited him, I believe in Bret 100 percent, and to see him recognized by the Walter Brown Award Committee is awesome."