Make or Break for Whitehead, Maine
by Scott McLaughlin/CHN Writer
Tim Whitehead has heard all the moaning and groaning. A growing number of Maine fans have taken to social media and petitions to voice their displeasure with the current state of their beloved hockey program and demand that Whitehead be removed as head coach.
They're unhappy with the fact the Black Bears have missed the NCAA tournament each of the last four seasons after reaching the Frozen Four 11 times from 1988-2007 — even though four of those were with Whitehead. They're unhappy with the fact this year's team is under .500 and sitting in the bottom half of Hockey East.
Whitehead said he understands the frustration and that he's right there with them — well, except for the firing the coach part.
"That's always gonna be there," Whitehead said of the criticism. "When we went to four Frozen Fours in my first six years [from 2002 to 2007], the same groups of people were not satisfied.
"Maine hockey's an important part of this community, and people are gonna be passionate about it. So that's actually a good thing, that people are that interested in our program. Obviously we're very anxious to get our team back into the big picture, so we share their frustration. We just have to keep working hard and moving forward."
Of course, nothing Whitehead says will satisfy some fans. Only results on the ice will. Only deep runs in the Hockey East tournament and appearances in the NCAA tournament could possibly sway them.
If the Black Bears are going to achieve either of those goals this year, they have some work to do. Since sweeping Providence on the last weekend of October, they've gone just 3-5-1, and all three wins came against teams ranked 39th or worse in RPI. Against quality opponents, they haven't been able to find a winning formula.
In the last two months, the Black Bears have lost 5-1 to both Boston College and Boston University, they've been swept at home by Massachusetts-Lowell, and they've lost to archrival New Hampshire. There have been a number of reasons for Maine's struggles, with team defense chief among them, according to Whitehead.
"Our D-corps is strong, but our forwards need to help more with their responsibilities," Whitehead said. "That's something that's been a work in progress, and something that's been inconsistent. We just came off a real good stretch where it was great ... then the third period against BU, we had a tough time there. We left the front of the net open a couple times and didn't get all the way back."
Going hand in hand with the inconsistent defense has been a bad penalty kill. The Black Bears have killed just 78.3 percent of their penalties this season, putting them eighth in the conference. Thanks to the poor PK and seven shorthanded goals against — something Whitehead also attributed to guys not getting back — Maine ranks seventh in special teams net despite having the league's best power play.
The Black Bears also suffer from a lack of scoring depth. Their first line of Spencer Abbott, Brian Flynn and Joey Diamond has accounted for 25 of the team's 46 goals this season (54.3 percent), which is great for them but not so good for the rest of the team. The second line has scored just five even-strength goals all season, and the bottom two lines have chipped in five combined.
"We knew we didn't have as much depth as we may have had the last two seasons, when we put up some great offensive numbers," Whitehead said. "But we're developing that depth and we're starting to see more contributions from some of those guys. They've worked extremely hard to improve their offensive production."
Of course, there have been positives for Maine this season as well. In addition to the dynamic top line and the potent power play, the team has gotten more consistent goaltending from Dan Sullivan recently. Although he hasn't been great by any means, the sophomore has gone 3-1-1 with a respectable .909 save percentage over his last five games.
"It's mostly just gaining experience," Whitehead said of Sullivan. "He made progress last year, but got held back by an ankle injury in the second half. He's healthy this year and he's improved with hard work and focus. His development isn't an accident. ... He's practicing at a high level, and as a result he's playing at a high level. He's a very dedicated and focused young man."
Still, one line, a power play and a goalie will only get a team so far. It certainly isn't enough to land a spot in NCAAs. If the rest of the team doesn't step it up both offensively and defensively, Whitehead's seat will only get hotter.
For now, though, Whitehead isn't worried about what might happen to him if the team doesn't improve. He's focused on the second half of the season, which starts Thursday in the Florida College Classic. He said all the team's goals are still attainable, starting with finishing in the top four and getting home ice for the Hockey East quarterfinals.
"We knew coming into the season that it had the potential to be a challenging season for us, but we also knew it had the potential to be a rewarding season for us," he said. "And it still does have that potential.
"With the sweep at Vermont [to open December], we at least put ourselves back in the hunt for home ice. We're a little behind the eight-ball, but at least that gave us an opportunity to compete for home ice. That's still there. It's a long season. We're excited to see if we can climb that ladder."