BOSTON – In a way, albeit a very perverse and tragic one, the end to the University of Maine men’s hockey season was cruelly appropriate.
Even in a solemn locker room under the stands at the FleetCenter – where only sighs, sniffles, and sounds of sorrow punctuated the silence – Black Bear coaches and players alike had to admit to the irony in their 1-0 NCAA title-game loss to Denver Saturday night.
“It’s all about how many goals you put up on that scoreboard, not how many shots you put up,” said junior center Ben Murphy. “We’ve been getting outshot for a while, but it’s tough to swallow. We knew we needed some and we weren’t able to get one.”
Indeed, the Black Bears may have been lucky to get as far as they did. Some may even go so far as to say Maine was aided by forces unseen while driving to the brink of a third national title. How else do you explain it?
Consider the following factors working against 2004′s national runner-up:
. The Bears lost their five top scorers from last season, scorers who accounted for just under 61 percent of their goals.
. Also gone as the 2003-04 season dawned were Maine’s top three defensemen.
“I mean, you look back to September and, outside of our locker room, you probably couldn’t have found anybody who’d tell you we’d be here,” Murphy said. “That’s probably a compliment to our seniors and our coaches and the leadership they gave us.”
. Maine was picked to finish fourth in a Hockey East preseason poll, given its offseason losses, youth, inexperience, and lack of star players.
“We didn’t have any Hobey Baker finalists or anything like that, but we had great players who bought into the system and cared about each other and what’s best for the team,” Murphy added. “That’s what drove us through the season.”
. Even though the team matured quickly as the season developed, the Bears rarely made it easy on themselves. Sure, they turned into a 33-8-3 squad that fell two goals short of a title, but of their 33 wins, 15 were by one goal – eight in a row before Saturday.
. Even more troubling was the Bears’ inability to generate much offense off their power play, especially late in the season. Maine came into the playoffs with an 18.8 power-play percentage after scoring on only 34 of 181 power-play opportunities during the regular season. Even the coaches must have wondered how they were winning some of these games.
“A few times we did say that, but we really believe there is a fine line between teams and talent, and we felt we had enough of what we needed to win a championship,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “I think that’s why we achieved so much this year, because we understood our limitations as well as our strengths.”
It didn’t get any better in the post-season as Maine was 1-for-22 (4.5 percent) on the power play. If that wasn’t frustrating enough, the Bears managed just 22 total shots in those 22 opportunities. Saturday was more of the same as Maine was 0-for-6 and Denver was 1-for-4.
“That’s an area we’ve struggled in all year and we probably should have worked on more, but I guess it’s just a game where it finally caught up to us,” said sophomore defenseman Jeff Mushaluk.
To add insult – or at least a painful twist of irony – to the whole thing, the Bears, who had won despite being outshot in three of their last four games, lost Saturday despite outshooting Denver 24-20.
“We had every opportunity. There’s no excuse,” Whitehead said. “We had a very slim margin for error, and, unfortunately, it caught up with us tonight.
“I just feel bad for these guys … That’s for sure. I wish I had words to describe how we feel … because this one really hurts.”
And it will hurt for a long time. Whitehead knows this because he has felt this hurt before. So have this team’s seniors: captain Todd Jackson, assistant captain Prestin Ryan, Cameron Lyall, Colin Shields and Frank Doyle. All but Doyle were part of the 2002 Maine team that fell 52 seconds short of a title.
“Our lack of offense caught up to us tonight,” said Jackson, whose slumped shoulders and hushed voice at the post-game press conference made it painfully obvious how hard this loss had hit him.
And so it falls to the next crop of seniors to help teammates overcome it. Murphy appears well on his way.
“We need to use this. We can’t let it drain us,” Murphy said. “Obviously it’s going to hurt for a long time, but come summer, we’ll build with this and remember and use this as a driving motivation because all we want to do is get back here and win this next year.”
Denver’s playing style provided the final ironic note to this game as the Pioneers basically beat Maine at its own game: stellar goaltending, solid defense, just enough offense to get by, and a lot of heart.
“You don’t have to be real talented to play defense, but you’ve got to have a lot of heart and character to persevere. We had to learn that to beat a terrific team like Maine,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky.
The Pioneers won despite two- and three-man Maine advantages in the last two minutes, No. 3 scorer Lukas Dora’s suspension for a team rule violation, and the shot disparity.
“Knowing how this team has been throughout the year, I’d have to say that’s just typical,” Gwozdecky said. “Things were going along much too smoothly for us in this national tournament.”
Sound familiar? It should. That statement could just as easily apply to Maine.
“As much as we wanted this to be a storybook season, as we did two years ago, it doesn’t always happen that way,” Whitehead said. “But it doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of the players on this team. I’m incredibly proud of these guys. For them to get this close to a championship this particular season is remarkable.”