Where There's a Will ...
Captain O'Neill Leads Maine to Hockey East Final
by Michael King/CHN Writer
BOSTON The mark of a captain's importance to a team can be measured a variety of ways.
For team's like Boston University and Merrimack, their captains (forward Chris Connolly and defenseman Karl Stollery, respectively) are not necessarily the best offensive or even most talented players at their position.
But more important than statistics like points or plus/minus, these individuals add unparalleled leadership. They increase their level of effort whenever their team begins a game flat or need to pick-up their play.
For Maine, senior co-captain Will O'Neill also adds this dynamic. But it's not the only factor that makes the player special. Beyond being one of the best defensive defensemen in Hockey East, he makes unique contributions to the offense and serves as a key cog in the transitional game.
Friday night in the Black Bears' Hockey East semifinal game against BU, the Salem, Mass., native propelled his team to victory with an offensive outburst. He scored twice in the second period, double his season mark, in leading his team to a 5-3 victory. O'Neill and the Black Bears will play Boston College for the Hockey East Tournament championship on Saturday. Regardless of that result, Maine is assured a berth in the NCAA tournament beginning next week.
Though the team leader facilitates much movement of the puck in the offensive zone, few expected O'Neill to be his team's top scorer (2-1-3) against BU. The obvious choice would have been anyone from the team's prolific top line of senior forwards Spencer Abbott and Brian Flynn, and junior Joey Diamond. O'Neill had not scored a goal since his team's 3-3 tie at North Dakota in October at season's introduction.
However, O'Neill did finish second in the conference in scoring among defensemen. Beyond the three high-scoring forwards, he's second on the team in scoring. But his contribution to the offensive typically involves moving the puck up ice and shooting from the blue line to create chances in front of the net. A player will generate many assists this way, but it requires luck to score goals.
He also quarterbacks Maine's brilliant first power-play unit. O'Neill is a large reason why the Black Bears are the best in the conference with the man advantage, which included registering four goals on the power play Friday night.
He also nearly converted a break-away opportunity in the middle of the third, after a turnover near center ice created a rare one-on-one scoring chance for the senior during 4-on-4 play.
Friday's goal-scoring success was an affirmation of his offensive ability and contributions to the team. Both his goals — shots from near the blueline — were fortunate to make it past shielded BU goaltender Kieran Millan, but perhaps a fitting reward for his strong play this season.
The senior spends most of his time on offensive helping his teammates score. O'Neill attributed his second-career multi-goal game to his fellow Black Bears providing him with the opportunity to find the net.
"I've been getting shots and trying to shoot more in the playoffs as we advance," O'Neill said. "I received great passes on both goals and I just tried to get my head up and bury it."
In addition, Maine coach Tim Whitehead chided the senior after the game that he's been trying to get his players to shoot more — including the 6-foot-1 defenseman.
"The big adjustment was the coaches yelling 'shoot!' from the bench," Whitehead said in jest, referencing the unexpected nature of his captain's two-goal game.
Despite this offensive success, he's been a forgotten man in Hockey East awards. He did not make either of the two Hockey East All-Star teams, nor named an Honorable Mention. Keen to make certain that Maine's top line received the recognition they deserve as one of the top lines in college hockey, O'Neill was left out of an honor to which he arguably lays strong claim.
Last year, it was senior Josh Van Dyk who received the recognition for the Black Bear blueline. He was named to second team All-Hockey East. But once Maine lost to Merrimack in the quarterfinals of the Hockey East tournament, Van Dyk's career had ended and it was now O'Neill's blueline.
However, his best qualities as a defenseman are his defensive consistency and poise with the puck. In addition, he engages in behavior that serves as a model for his teammates. He will make plays that establish a tone of defensive strength like blocking shot with his face — as he did in the third period with a one-goal lead Friday night.
When starting break-outs, he rarely rushes the first pass or puts his recipient in a bad position. The result is a lack of turnovers and smooth transitions to the offensive zone.
Though typically reserved, O'Neill engages in a visibly emotional form of leadership when required. After teammate Abbott went down with an injury after a non-called elbow to the head, and BU scored on the same sequence, he demonstrably argued his team's case at center ice to the officials.
This type of leadership is usually indicative that an individual has the mental strength to thrive in higher levels of competition. Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets of the National Hockey League, O'Neill hopes to continue his career in Western Canada. The NHL always will have a place to for reliable defensemen who can aid the transition game when called upon. It remains to be seen if the senior can improve his play to the standard of a NHL starter, but O'Neill will certainly get the opportunity to prove that he can.
Judging solely by his play Friday in a NHL area at the TD Garden, his prospects are favorable. O'Neill grew-up not far from the Garden in Salem. He is among the contingent of talented Maine players hailing from Massachusetts. The Bay State has historically been a favorable recruiting territory for Maine. Given the five Hockey East programs in the state, including two of the most successful in NCAA history between BU and BC, this success is a true testament to the program's reach and tradition.
Regardless of what happens in the final, O'Neill and the Black Bears will continue extending the reach of their program. And if the captain continues playing with a scoring touch to complement his shut-down defensive style, then Maine may find itself back in the Frozen Four for the first time since the 2006-07 season.