Team of the Week: Maine
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
A visit from Boston College rarely means good things for Hockey East teams. Entering last weekend's pair with the Eagles in Orono, though, Maine knew it caught the Eagles at the best possible time.
For once, it seems a second half hasn't gone exactly as BC coach Jerry York would have liked, and, more importantly, the Black Bears have improved game to game since late November. Despite a troubling 6-2 loss to Merrimack one week prior and a frustrating 2-2 tie with the Warriors the following evening, Maine began its pair with the Eagles having taken at least one point from nine of its previous 11 games — a 7-2-2 stretch.
When the games with BC finished, the run stood at 9-2-2, as the Black Bears swept their weekend with the Eagles. The four points pushed Maine to fourth place in Hockey East — two points clear of fifth-place Providence after the Friars' win over UMass Lowell Tuesday night.
"We were a little frustrated after the Saturday game at Merrimack," Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. "We felt we played one of our strongest games of the year, but we were only able to take a point away from that weekend. So the guys were very motivated to prove that we could do more. The guys seemed very determined last weekend to play their way through any obstacles that arose, and we were fortunate to get the last bounce."
Maine's top line of wingers Spencer Abbott and Joey Diamond and center Brian Flynn has propelled Maine on its current run. In the 9-2-2 stretch, Abbott has scored seven goals and assisted on 19, Flynn's netted nine with 12 helpers and Diamond has managed 11 goals of his own with eight assists. As a whole, the group has combined for 66 points in these 13 games, on 27 goals and 39 assists.
Against BC, though, the Black Bears' depth players and emerging scorers chipped in with some revelatory performances of their own. In Saturday's 7-4 win over the Eagles, Matt Mangene scored three times, including the empty netter to seal the win. However, it was his goal at 3 minutes, 42 seconds of overtime on Friday night that stands out the most. Mangene's goal gave Maine a 4-3 win over the Eagles on a night when its top line was held relatively quiet. Adam Shemansky scored twice in the game, including a game-tying goal with 5:11 left in regulation.
"It's always important to get contributions from everyone in a jersey," Whitehead said. "Early in the season that was definitely a concern. We lost five elite power-play guys from last year's team … So it's taken us some time. The first couple of months we were basically surviving off one unit, now we've been able to develop a second unit that's been just as effective as our first. That's made a big difference."
The progression of sophomore goaltender Dan Sullivan has paced Maine as well. While his numbers are unlikely to earn him any conference honors, a pair of 30-plus save outings with York's club in town cements him as a capable young goaltender in Hockey East.
"A lot of (the success) centers around consistent goaltending," Whitehead said. "I've been real proud of Dan Sullivan. He's come a long way and improved dramatically in the last two years. He's just been very steady and dependable for us. The guys have great confidence, and they know that if they make a mistake, Dan's going to back us up. He's giving us every opportunity to win, and he's done it on a consistent basis."
Even with the wins and their current stretch, the Black Bears are fully cognizant of what lies ahead. Nine of Maine's remaining 11 games are in-conference, with a pair in Orono against Alabama-Huntsville being its only break from the grind of late-season Hockey East play.
Given the Black Bears' current position in the Pairwise — they'll begin this weekend's critical pair of games at Boston University 18th — Whitehead understands the value of wins this late in the season for more than just conference tournament seeding.
"It's great to be in a strong conference like Hockey East, because, when you get in the second half of the year, you're able to move up the Pairwise if you win some games," Whitehead said. "That's not always the case in some conferences, so it's very reassuring to know that, even though we're not in the top 15 now, we'll have that opportunity if we can win."
The sweep of BC has infused great optimism in the Black Bear faithful that hasn't been particularly subtle in expressing its displeasure with Whitehead. Maine has failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament each year since advancing to the Frozen Four in 2007. A 3-6-1 start to this season led some to go as far as circulating a petition calling for the termination of Whitehead should Maine fail to put together a successful season.
The experienced coach has successfully navigated the double-edged sword that comes with expectations. Guiding his team on its current stretch has quelled these complaints for now. But Whitehead and his club believe they can squash them permanently with a strong finish to the regular season and a good, long run through the postseason.