The Road Ahead
Maine Looks For Wins, Anywhere it Can Get Them
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
The first thing players and coaches in Hockey East talk about when they talk about that bus ride up to Orono, Maine, is the crowd. Those Maine fans, they'll say, they're rowdy. They love their Black Bears, and they hate everyone else.
The home-ice advantage doesn't always lead to wins for Maine, but it's never an easy place for an opponent to go. This season, especially, Alfond Arena has proven kind for the Black Bears. At home, they're 9-0-0, picking up wins over both Boston College and Massachusetts-Lowell among others. This half of the split is part of the reason Maine finds itself in a fight for a first-round bye in the Hockey East Tournament.
The other half of that split, though, is where the problem lies. Maine has yet to win a road game this season. Neutral-site victories against poor Princeton and Boston University teams were welcomed by first-year Black Bear coach Red Gendron. Still, that first victory in someone else's barn has evaded Maine's grasp.
"We need to win games no matter where they are played," Gendron said. "Up until (Saturday night), we hadn't won that road game. We played pretty well a few times, and we should've won. Tonight, we didn't play very well. That's something we need to address."
It's easy to look at this discrepancy and blame the location for the results. Gendron isn't buying it, though. Approaching the issues that way is an excuse — one Gendron won't accept for his club.
Despite this hard line from Gendron, Maine's inability to play as they want to away from Alfond is very much a product of its youth. Mix in a new coach, bringing a new set of expectations and ideas, and it's not too difficult to understand the losses away from Alfond.
Saturday night, Maine dropped a tough 7-2 decision to BC. The same club it defeated, 5-1, in late November — in Maine. For Gendron, the location wasn't the problem. His club sent BC to the power play seven times. The Eagles converted on three of the man advantages. With players, such as Kevin Hayes and Johnny Gaudreau, roaming the rink at Conte Forum, spotting the Eagles an extra skater seven times is never a good idea.
"I'm more concerned with our team getting better each and every day," Gendron said. "If you do that, the results take care of themselves. (Against BC), we took a step backwards. We did not get better as a team. We got worse. Our discipline was gone. Our focus and awareness were gone. We were embarrassed tonight by a very, very good offensive club."
Twenty-four hours earlier, the Black Bears escaped the Tsongas Center with a 1-1 tie against league title contender Massachusetts-Lowell. Ryan Lomberg continued his breakout season for Maine, scoring a late game-tying goal. Once again, Maine drifted from its strengths, letting a strong UML club dictate the game.
Like Gendron said, Maine's problem isn't the location of the game. It's the way the team plays at those rinks.
As he continues to mold this surprising team in his first year, Gendron knows his team will have to learn to get wins away from the Alfond. Perhaps, as legendary BC coach Jerry York believes, the key is simple to treat road games the same as those in friendlier confines.
"We don't really distinguish between home versus road. Hockey's hockey," York said.
"If we played better up at Maine, we would've had a chance to win that game. We don't worry if we're on the road or not. We just want to play hockey. We don't try to change one way or another. Maine has a good club. They're going to be a dangerous team down the road and, obviously, in the tournament."
After a one-point weekend away from Alfond, the Black Bears head into one of their most important series of the year. A home-and-home with hated rival New Hampshire, starting Friday night in Durham, awaits. Learning to win on the road is never easy. Hoping to get a win against a rival at their own rink only makes it more difficult.
Things don't change much for the Black Bears for the rest of the season. Series with clubs, such as Notre Dame and UNH, that have a long history of success in the second halves of seasons. Moreover, a trip to Matthews Arena for a weekend with a Northeastern likely to be fighting for home ice is but another major challenge for Maine.
Saturday night, Maine lost on the road because of its penalty kill. Friday night, the Black Bears lost a point to UML because they played the game the River Hawks demanded instead of the type that has all of college hockey keeping an eye on Orono.
Winning championships in college hockey demands success away from home. The Black Bears have five tough road games left and a legitimate chance to host a quarterfinal series in the Hockey East Tournament. Their reward for figuring that part out? More games at Alfond. Based on their record in Orono, that should be motivation enough.