January 18, 2013

Hockey East Journal: Black Bears enduring rare rebuild

By Andrew Merritt

Goalie Dan Sullivan and the Black Bears were in the NCAA tournament last spring. (Dave Arnold Photography)

Maine is a program that traditionally measures its success with banners,  trophies and winning records.

This year, though, the Black Bears are measuring their success in blocked shots, good shifts, and low-scoring games.

It’s a dreaded rebuilding year in Orono, where Maine has struggled to come up with a solution to losing its top two forwards and three best defensemen after the 2011-12 season. Spencer Abbott and Brian Flynn accounted for almost 30 percent of the Black Bears’ scoring last year, and Matt Mangene, Will O’Neill and Ryan Hegarty provided the stalwart defense that helped hold Maine’s opponents to fewer than three goals per game.

But all five are gone this year – Mangene left early for the pros and the rest graduated ­– and things just aren’t the same at Alfond Arena. Heading into this weekend’s games against Merrimack, Maine has just five wins, and only one against a Hockey East team. With the bulk of their league schedule remaining, a winning record is unlikely at best, and if the season ended today, Maine would miss the Hockey East tournament for just the third time in its history, and the first time since 2008.

So in this bleakest of winters, the success of the rebuilding effort can only be found in small increments, and usually not on the scoreboard.

“Is our team defense improving? It is, we’ve cut it dramatically,” coach Tim Whitehead said after Jan. 11’s 3-3 tie with Northeastern. “Are we generating more chances, whether we score or not? Yes we are, so that’s good. We’re improving on our power play, we didn’t get one tonight, would have been nice. That’s a game last year that I think we win with our power play. We don’t have that luxury this year. But we’re getting there, we’re improving.”

With nine freshmen on the roster, the Black Bears are young – so young, in fact, that when Bill Norman scored in Friday’s draw, he became the eighth Maine player to pick up his first collegiate goal this season.

Sophomore Connor Leen is the Black Bears’ leading scorer with just 10 points, in striking contrast to Abbott’s league-leading 62 last season. And with the lack of a go-to superstar, or even a true top line like last year, Maine is trying for balance this year, with 21 players in possession of at least a point, and nine with two or more goals.

“We like our four lines and our three sets of D,” Whitehead said. “That’s a good development for us. We don’t have the Flynn-Abbott-[Joey] Diamond line or the O’Neill-Mangene pairing that we had last year, and that’s just the reality. We’re developing that, the guys are starting to show some poise, but until we get to that point, we’re going to have to do it by committee.”

Balance is nice, but at the moment, the numbers simply aren’t there for the Maine offense, which is averaging a league-worst 1.52 goals per game – well behind Northeastern’s ninth-best 2.17 goals per game, and barely in the same universe as league leader Boston College’s 3.42 gpg. The defense has been able to hold opponents to 28.3 shots per game, the fourth-lowest total in Hockey East. 

That’s the kind of number that gives Whitehead and the Black Bears some optimism.

“We need to keep scores low,” Whitehead said. “We’ve got to keep it at two [goals] or less. Where we’re at now with our offensive development, we don’t want to get into shootouts. Last year we’d be very comfortable in a 5-4, 6-5, high-penalty-minute game, but now we’ve got to stay out of the box, we’ve got to play well defensively, we’ve got to keep the score low, protect [goaltender] Marty [Ouellette], and if we do that, we’re going to be in every game, which is a good thing.”

For a program that has won two national titles and five Hockey East crowns, it’s hard to swallow low scoring games as marks of improvement, but that’s the reality this year in Maine, where the rebuild continues.

Player of the Week

Jon Gillies, fr., Providence

Over the last three games, the South Portland, Maine, native has made 118 saves on 124 shots, including Thursday’s 48-stop performance in a loss, and Saturday’s 2-0 shutout, the third of the year for the rookie.

Game of the Week

Northeastern at Boston University, Friday, 7 p.m. (NESN)

The league’s two top scoring freshmen – NU’s Kevin Roy and BU’s Danny O’Regan (Needham, Mass.) – match wits in this preview of the first round of the Beanpot.

Power Rankings

  1. Boston College (13-4-2, 10-3-1 HEA)Johnny Gaudreau, who leads the nation in points per game and goals per game, wasted no time making a difference in his return following the World Junior Championships, picking up a pair of assists in a 5-2 win over New Hampshire – part of a weekend split with the Wildcats.

  2. New Hampshire (14-4-2, 9-3-1 HEA) – No. 3 UNH stayed strong at home, avenging Friday night’s loss at BC with a 2-1 victory over the Eagles Saturday at the Whittemore Center, where the Wildcats are 8-1-0 this year.

  3. Boston University (12-7-0, 9-4-0 HEA) – The Terriers are spreading the scoring around, with 15 scorers combining for the last 31 goals, and BU is unbeaten in its last three Hockey East games after Saturday’s win over Merrimack.

  4. UMass-Lowell 12-7-1, 6-6-1 HEA) – If there was any doubt the River Hawks are the hottest team in Hockey East right now, that was taken care of Thursday night with the win over Providence, which made it eight straight for UML – the nation’s third-longest unbeaten streak.

  5. Providence (9-9-3, 7-5-2 HEA)Jon Gillies and the Providence defense are the only crew in Hockey East that hasn’t given up more than four goals in a game this year.

  6. Merrimack (8-9-4, 6-5-1 HEA) – The Warriors are in the middle of an odd schedule quirk that has them playing Maine three straight games, with two at Maine this weekend. They certainly started things right, with Boston native Mike Collins scoring a pair in Saturday’s 6-0 victory at home.

  7. Northeastern (6-10-1, 3-8-1 HEA)Chris Rawlings moved up in the Northeastern record books over the weekend, surpassing Brad Thiessen for the No. 2 spot on the career saves list with 3,203 (and counting), and he tied Thiessen for third all-time in appearances with 111, four short of No. 2 Keni Gibson and 15 behind No. 1 Bruce Racine.

  8. UMass (7-9-2, 4-6-1 HEA)Conor Allen ran his scoring streak to six straight games with a goal in Friday’s loss to Providence, marking the longest for any Minuteman this year, but the spree ended the next night in a Friar shutout victory.

  9. Vermont (6-11-4, 3-8-4 HEA) – The Catamounts, winless in their last three, head to Philadelphia to play Penn State, becoming the first Hockey East team to take on the brand new Nittany Lions squad.

  10. Maine (4-11-2, 1-7-2 HEA) – Perhaps the biggest surprise of this transition year for the Black Bears is that they’re winless at Alfond Arena. They did beat Mercyhurst on Jan. 4 as the home team, but that game was played at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at MerrittNEHJ@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @A_Merritt.