Team of the Week: Maine
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
Maine coach Tim Whitehead expected the 2012-13 season to be something of a challenge. Gone from last year's Hockey East finalist and NCAA tournament team were a series of high-end players who put together successful careers in Orono.
However, the process of transforming a young, unestablished group into a competitive team has taken longer than he anticipated.
The Black Bears still aren't where Whitehead expects them to be, but a pair of wins last weekend suggest the group is ready to take an important step. Maine swept Boston College in Chestnut Hill to thrust themselves back into the Hockey East playoff race and earn CHN's Team of the Week.
The Black Bears received timely scoring last weekend along with continued excellent play from junior goaltender Martin Ouellette. The third-year player spent most of his first two seasons backing up classmate Dan Sullivan. However, his emergence this year has been a welcomed sight for Whitehead and the Black Bears.
The rangy Ouellette arrived in Orono athletically gifted. However, acclimating himself and his game to the college level took some time. Ouellette has started all but one game for Maine since Nov. 9. In that time, he has a 1.94 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.
"We always knew Marty could reach the level he's currently at and even further," Whitehead said. "He came in a year early, and it's taken him some time to play at a high level consistently. He was always quick and agile. The other parts of his game that are just important as the athletic side of goaltending have been there this year. He's more controlled than he has been. He's disciplined positionally, and he's more patient than he used to be."
Individual player development has been a major focus of the Black Bears this year. Replacing the types of players who departed after last season meant integrating a series of youngsters into the program, while working to translate their skills to college hockey. On the season, five of Maine's top eight scorers are underclassmen. Goals have been scarce throughout the season. However, Whitehead has seen improvement in scoring chances and offensive output as these players have grown into their roles within Maine's system.
Last Friday, two of Maine's four goals came from freshmen Will Merchant and Ryan Lomberg. Senior Joey Diamond, who led Hockey East in goals with 25 last year, scored the first and Kyle Beattie added an empty-netter to put the game away. Saturday night, junior Jon Swavely scored twice, and sophomore Conor Leen, Maine's leading scorer, netted one as well.
Frequent contribution from a number of players is critical for the Black Bears to sustain last weekend's performance level. Additionally, the four points from the wins leave Maine just two points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in Hockey East with 11 conference games remaining.
"We were pleased to get the results we did," Whitehead said. "We know we have to more work to do, though. We have to keep from focusing on the results that we get and keep working on the process. If we're focused on playing well defensively, the wins will come."
That ultimately has been the driving force behind Maine's improved scoring and record. Strong defensive play and overall discipline in all three zones leads to scoring chances. Since Nov. 9, the Black Bears have allowed an average of 2.19 goals per game. In their previous 10, they had allowed 3.20 goals per game.
Ouellette's play is part of the success, but the general improvement of the Black Bears as a team has led to fewer scoring chances for opponents. This hasn't led to massive shift in scoring for Maine. Prior to Nov. 9, Maine average 1.20 goals per game. In the 16 games since, that number has grown to 2.00 per game. The Black Bears still aren't producing as they need to, but the improvement is undeniable.
"We've been a very good defensive hockey team since about November 9th," Whitehead said. "It's not like we made a full transformation in one weekend. As our younger players have become accustomed to our systems and expectations, it's taken them some time to play their roles well. Marty's play has had a lot to do with it as well. Now, the offense has come a little more because we're playing well defensively and forcing opponents into mistakes more than we were in the first half."
Diamond, Beattie and the other Maine upperclassmen have taken the struggles this season as well as Whitehead could ask. Their production has dropped heavily from a season ago. However, their behavior and the example they set for younger players off the ice is a source of pride for the coach, who is in 12th season at Maine.
"It's been especially hard on a lot of our seniors," Whitehead said. "They've never been through a losing season, but I'm proud of the way they've handled it. We knew it was going to be a challenge offensively. It took a little longer than we expected for some of our younger guys to get comfortable at this level. But the upperclassmen have done a good job helping them along. There are a few underclassmen who have been much better since the Florida tournament. They're playing well, and it's leading to more offense."
Since Nov. 9, Maine is 6-6-4. The record is hardly indicative of a dominant college hockey team — the type of club most Maine fans still expect Whitehead and others within the program to produce. The Black Bears have, however, improved from a horrid start that made a playoff berth seem nearly impossible.
Steady improvement since mid-November, along with last weekend's critical sweep of first-place BC, has made playing into March a very real possibility for Maine. The Black Bears host Providence and Massachusetts-Lowell for games at Alfond Arena this weekend.
Shocking as it may seem, Maine is still without a home win on the season. Based on last weekend's success in Chestnut Hill, that's another hurdle this young, talented team is ready to overcome.