ORONO – Tim Whitehead came to the University of Maine under difficult circumstances. Head coach Shawn Walsh called him and asked him to apply for the assistant coach’s job with the understanding that he would be the interim head coach if Walsh’s kidney cancer kept him sidelined.
Then those difficult circumstances hit rock bottom when Walsh lost his 18-month battle with kidney cancer on Sept. 24.
Whitehead was elevated from assistant coach to interim head coach and has guided the Bears to their fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.
A 3-4-2 start and an 11-7-4 record after 22 games left their NCAA tournament status in jeopardy. And they knew they finished the season with six difficult road games among their final eight.
But the Bears have gone 12-3-3 since a 2-2 tie at Northeastern on Jan. 12, including two wins over a formidable Boston College team and a triumph over Boston University in the Hockey East Tournament.
The third-seeded Bears take on 15-14-4 Harvard, the sixth seed, in their NCAA Eastern Regional first-round game on Saturday at noon at the Worcester (Mass. ) Centrum.
“I’ve been really pleased with this team,” Whitehead said Thursday. “I’ve really enjoyed working with these guys. Everybody has pulled together as a team. We’ve dedicated the season to Shawn, of course. We’ve kept our focus on the commitment we made to each other. I’m very proud of the guys and the coaches I’ve been working with. We still have the opportunity to achieve our goals.”
He was particularly impressed with the way his team performed in the Hockey East tournament.
“We got to the final step and played a great game against New Hampshire [in a 3-1 loss]. Now we’ve got to follow through and play hard [in the NCAA Tournament]. If we do and get a few bounces, we may get the opportunity to play UNH again. That would be a thrill for our guys,” Whitehead said.
The former five-year UMass-Lowell coach said he came into the season “with an open mind.
“I couldn’t tell you the difference between a player who had been a first-liner or a fourth-liner. The guys had to earn their ice time. As a result, we’ve seen a lot of guys contribute in a lot of different ways. Everyone has become an important part of this team and we have confidence in everyone who has a jersey.”
Whitehead and assistants Grant Standbrook, Matt Thomas and Campbell Blair have tweaked the lineup throughout the season, searching for the right combinations.
“We need to give ourselves the best opportunity to win,” said Whitehead, whose latest tweaking involves starting Matt Yeats in goal instead of first-team All-Hockey East choice Mike Morrison.
Whitehead said there have been “several turning points” that have contributed to the NCAA berth.
“The [3-2] overtime win over Brown [on Nov. 21] may seem like a meaningless game but it was huge because we came from behind and we had been blowing leads in the third period dating back to last season. All of a sudden, we were building momentum for third periods and overtimes,” said Whitehead. “Now we feel great going into the third period.”
He said sweeping UMass-Lowell on the road [ 2-1, 4-1] was important because “we had to play smart, defensive hockey on the road.”
He also pointed to the come-from-behind win over Providence at home and tie at Providence; the win and tie at home against New Hampshire and win and tie at BU.
Then there were the back-to-back losses to BC [4-3] and Merrimack [5-2] on Feb. 8-9. That’s the last time Maine had lost until the Hockey East title game.
“That was the perfect eye-opener. We had come a long way but that showed us we hadn’t come as far as we needed to and we had to refocus on our systems,” said Whitehead.
The win and tie at BU showed them they could beat a good team in a hostile environment.
Now comes Harvard.
“They’re going to be a very tough opponent. People are saying the same things they said before the BC series: ‘It’s a tough draw. They’re a young team that is that is playing real well right now and is finally coming into its own.
“We respect that. But, at the same time, we know how we can play, too, and we’re ready to go right at them,” Whitehead said.