Maine Finding Its Way
by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter
During their most recent action, a 6-2 win over Northeastern on Friday night, the Black bears dressed 14 underclassmen, including five freshmen. The win extended Maine’s winning streak to three games; all three wins came in Hockey East play after the Black Bears dropped their first two conferences games to start the season.
The youth didn’t prove much of an obstacle against Northeastern, a team ravaged by injury in the season’s first month, as five of Maine’s six goals were scored by underclassmen.
The most impressive of Whitehead’s 2009 rookie class has been Adam Shemansky, who leads the team with six goals and started Maine’s scoring late in first period on Friday.
Line combinations have hardly remained a constant for the Black Bears thus far. However, Shemansky’s performance tonight, paired with junior hockey teammates and fellow freshmen Matt Mangene and Kyle Beattie may be a hold over for Saturday’s lineup.
“They played together last year with the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs [of the Eastern Junior Hockey league],” Whitehead said following the game. “We reunited that line, and they connected for the first goal, which is great to see. We’re very pleased with those guys; they’ve been playing very well. They’ve played very clean defensively, and they’re chipping in a lot on offense.”
Over this most recent stretch, Whitehead’s newest rookie class has eased into a comfort zone with strong efforts on both ends of the ice against Vermont and Boston University last weekend before Friday’s win over Northeastern.
The recent success has quelled the rumbles about Whitehead’s future in Orono, if only temporarily. Maine fans have a notoriously short memory, and even less patience it seems.
“It’s been difficult,” Whitehead said of the last two seasons. “People outside of the program don’t always understand where we are at, and that we have a plan.”
Maine was hardly at its best during the 1-5-0 stretch that began the season, but beginning your season with road trips to Union, Massachusetts and New Hampshire isn’t an ideal way to begin a season pinned as a return to prominence.
“We’re a much different team than what went on the road the last time and, certainly, since the opening weekend as we’ve gotten a lot of our players back,” Whitehead said. “In a short amount of time, we feel like a different team. We knew we would play better; we just didn’t know what the result would be. It’s good to not just play well, but get the result.”
Not only does it take players time adjust to the speed and level of play that comes with Hockey East, the systems their team’s employ are complex. They rely heavily on precise positioning and knowledge of your teammates. Of course, sometimes a gifted rookie rings the scoreboard with a nifty goal or saves a game with a heady play on the defensive side, but consistent success means knowing your role and playing within it.
Whitehead continues to bring talented players to Orono. With that, however, brings the eyes of others who can offer young players a little more than a free education after a strong season or two.
Since the Black Bears’ last NCAA tournament appearance in 2007, Whitehead has lost Teddy Purcell, Andrew Sweetland and Ben Bishop before their eligibility expired. Purcell and Sweetland both left after strong freshman seasons.
“We are moving forward despite the guys that we lost early to the professional ranks,” Whitehead said. “We’ve been very happy with our recruiting classes over the last few years. We feel like we’re on the verge of really becoming the type of Maine team that we want to be, and our fans want us to be. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes time. We thought we were there last year, but things fell off in the second half.”
The Black Bears went winless in their final eight games a season ago – earning the No. 8 seed in the conference tournament before losing to Boston University in the quarterfinals.
This season hasn’t advanced to that point just yet, but the experience Whitehead and his team gained from last season’s freefall will only serve them well as it approaches that point.
For now, it’s November. The Black Bears have Northeastern again on Saturday and a pair at Alfond Arena with Boston College next weekend. Anything beyond that isn’t crossing their mind.
“We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time,” Whitehead said, “but we’re not going to put a ceiling on what we can do.”