Team of the Week: Maine
by Matthew Conyers/CHN Staff Writer
by Matthew Conyers/CHN Staff Writer
Before they arrived, making the tournament was not something you thought about — because it was a foregone conclusion. It was all just part of being a Black Bear.
“I think that is the reason we all came to Maine — a chance to win a championship,” sophomore forward Brian Flynn said.
For nine straight years, Maine didn't just play in the NCAA tournament, but excelled. The only time since 1986-87 (Shawn Walsh's third year) Maine didn't make it, was because of NCAA disciplinary reasons. There was a national championship in 1999. There were four Frozen Four appearances in six years after Tim Whitehead replaced Walsh.
The streak was the second-longest in the country behind Michigan at the time.
Then came 2007-08. Maine finished with just 13 wins — 10 less than the previous year — and outside the tournament field of 16. It didn’t get much better in 2008-09. The Black Bears once again completed the year with 13 wins and were absent from the tournament field for the second straight season.
“A lot of people were just dumbfounded,” sophomore Will O’Neill said. “We didn’t know what to do and what to think. It wasn’t a good feeling at all. You’re thinking too much, you’re not having as much fun. The pressure is on you and people are asking you the same questions. You get really sick of it.”
The reality of the situation was there for all of them to see — Maine was going through one of its roughest patches in program history.
“Amongst the players, we talked about that,” O’Neill said. “We didn’t want to let anyone down. We didn’t want the guys before us and the guys that come after us to forgot about us.
“We wanted our teams to be remembered and we knew we needed to change this.”
Here’s the catch: The Black Bears never thought they were as awful as their record displayed. This was all going to change soon enough they told each other. Just wait and see.
“We weren’t going to be part of the downfall of this program,” Flynn said. “We kind of all said we were going to turn it around. We kind of all put our foot down. We wanted to bring the program back.”
Well, the wait is over in Orono.
Last weekend, Maine defeated Hockey East-leading New Hampshire 3-2 and 6-3 for its first home victories over the Wildcats in close to four years. The weekend sweep helped push Maine, 12-2-2 since Nov. 27, into a tie for second place in Hockey East. Maine is eighth in the Pairwise and 10th in KRACH. If the victories over New Hampshire proved anything, it was that Maine’s comeback season is no mere illusion.
“We came into this season wanting to prove that we could do something very special,” sophomore forward Gustav Nyquist said. “We were very excited about this team from the start.”
Maine defeated New Hampshire with the same plan of attack it used on its opponents all season — goaltending and balanced scoring.
“We’ve just had strong goaltending and we’re putting the puck in the net,” O’Neill said. “We have three lines that can all score. We have guys that are role players and all the guys are contributing however they can every night.”
O’Neill isn’t lying. The Black Bears have seen all but three players on their roster log a point this season, and 10 guys have 12 points or more. The reason for the balanced production is simple according to the players.
“We knew how hard we had to work — you can attribute a lot of this to the offseason,” O’Neill said. “Guys were focused and knew they could play in this league coming in. We knew it. We know we can win.”
Still, the Black Bears aren’t without their own superstar. Nyquist has 14 goals and 26 assists and is bona fide Hobey Baker candidate.
“He’s unbelievable — every time he touches the puck, every time he is on the ice he’s a threat,” O’Neill said. “You name it and he does it.”
The run hasn’t surprised his teammates.
“Out of all the teams we’ve played, I don’t think I’ve seen a better player,” Flynn said.
For Nyquist, who says he doesn’t pay much attention to the hype, the bloated offensive numbers are just part of being a leader.
“I just wanted to help my team out as much as possible,” Nyquist said. “Obviously, I wanted to be one of the leaders. But I’m very honored just to be mentioned [as a Hobey Baker choice].”
Being comfortable with his linemates hasn’t hurt either. Nyquist credits familiarity for playing a huge role in his success — the Black Bears return their top line from last year and nearly all its key players.
“We all played a lot together last year and that helps,” Nyquist said.
Everything didn’t come together from the start, though. Maine begin the season 1-5 and with its first 0-3 start since the '80s.
“What we were really surprised with this year was that we were 1-5 to start the season,” O’Neill said. “I think that really shocked a lot of us. We thought we were going to start the season 5-1. It made everyone think a little differently.”
The difference in the turnaround can be linked to goalie Scott Darling. After losing to Michigan State on Oct. 16, Darling has posted a 14-2-3 record and a 2.76 goals against average. Darling also has a .909 save percentage.
“[Darling] has really been the catalyst,” O’Neill said. “He’s kept us in games and allowed us to win one-goal games we were losing last year.”
Maine also points to its Hockey East tournament quarterfinal series last year with eventual champion Boston University as being pivotal in their turnaround. The Black Bears failed to make it out of the quarterfinals as the eighth seed, but pushed the best team in the country to a deciding Game 3.
“I think we had a good team last year and I think we proved that against Boston University,” Nyquist said. “That gave us a lot of confidence coming into this season.”
Throughout it all, Whitehead, who was facing his own share of pressure to deliver from fans, kept the same even keel that had worked successfully in steering Maine to four Frozen Fours. His attitude has helped the players believe this turnaround was possible from the start.
“He lets us play and lets us play to our strengths,” O’Neill said. “I think if a coach is down your throat all the time, guys start gripping their sticks and making the same mistakes again. He has a basic system and we all stick to it.”
“He’s a players’ coach and he’s the reason we’re all on an even keel.”
The players admit to hearing the various rumors about Whitehead and his position, the rumblings during the bleakest moments that change was imminent. But not once did they think they were anything but rumors.
“You hear the rumors but obviously you don’t want to hear it,” O’Neill said. “They’re irrelevant, they’re stupid. It’s out of your control. All you can do is show up to the rink and play as hard as you can and play for the guy you want to play for.”
The school and Whitehead wished not to comment on any of the rumors that were being discussed at the start of the year.
So as the season has progressed, so has the Black Bears’ goals.
“The goal was to come in the top four in Hockey East and have home ice,” Flynn said. “We’ve kind of expanded on that goal and now we want to win the league.”
“This is why we chose Maine.”
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