The University of Maine men’s hockey team knew it had a challenging stretch of nonconference games to open its season.
The University of Minnesota, Bemidji State (Minn.), and North Dakota all played in the NCAA Tournament a year ago.
Minnesota has played in three of the last five Frozen Fours and won NCAA titles in 2002 and 2003, North Dakota has made four Frozen Four appearances in the last seven years with an NCAA title in 2000, and Bemidji State has made the NCAA Tournament the last two seasons.
The Black Bears find themselves 5-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time since March 22, 2004 after a 3-1 win over Minnesota in St. Paul, 7-1 and 6-3 home wins over Bemidji State, and 6-2, 3-1 victories at North Dakota this past weekend.
The Bears had hoped to get off to a good start but they’ve even surprised themselves.
“To play the caliber of teams we’ve played so far, including three games on the road, we probably would have been happy to be 4-1, realistically,” said senior left wing and assistant captain Josh Soares. “We have three road wins against a couple of WCHA teams who, more than likely, will be top-ranked all year.
“We’re playing great hockey right now. Our depth has been a key. We’re getting goal scoring from all of our lines, our defensemen have played well and [goalie] Ben Bishop has been huge for us. He has been playing tremendous hockey to start off the year. His angles are great and he’s been making big saves for us.”
Senior center Mike Hamilton said being 5-0 at this point is “pretty astonishing” considering the strength of their schedule.
“We’re all real excited about it. We’ve been playing as a team and sticking to the game plan coach [Tim Whitehead] gives us. Everyone is on board. Everyone is playing their roles and doing what they can to help the team win. We’ve got a lot of guys contributing. [Bishop] has been playing awesome and our defense corps has been playing great,” said Hamilton.
Twelve different players have scored goals and 17 have registered at least an assist.
“Most teams can’t keep us with us because of our depth,” said sophomore Bishop. “All four of our lines are top lines who can go against any other teams’ lines. Most teams don’t have that.”
Junior left wing Billy Ryan said everybody has accepted their roles and are “doing what is needed to win.”
Senior center and captain Michel Leveille said “we’ve stuck to our systems and now we’re looking to improve every single day.”
He also the team has worked hard and credited strength and conditioning coach Tim Guillerault for his work with the team.
“He’s doing a real good job. We’re all in really good shape right now and that could be a factor in our games,” said Leveille.
Maine has 10 players with four or more points. Leveille has 4 goals and 5 assists to lead the team with freshman right wing and linemate Teddy Purcell next with a team-high five goals to go with two assists.
The other forwards with at least four points are Wes Clark (3 & 2), Keith Johnson (2 & 3), Keenan Hopson (1 & 4), Brent Shepheard (2 & 2), Soares (2 & 2) and Ryan (1 & 3).
The two defensemen with at least four points are Bret Tyler (0 & 6) and Matt Duffy (2 & 2). Two other defensemen, Mike Lundin (1 & 2) and Bryan Plaszcz (1 & 0) have scored goals.
Bishop is 5-0 with a 1.49 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage.
Maine is an impressive 12-for-41 on the power play (29.3 percent) while killing off 27 of the opponents’ 32 opportunities (84.4 percent).
“They’re a complete hockey team,” said North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol. “We got beat by a better team this past weekend.
“Their special teams are very good and I like the depth they play with. They played solid for 120 minutes,” said Hakstol. “They aren’t a team that’s going to ‘Wow’ anybody. They’re just a damned good hockey team.”
He added that Maine’s “experience level makes them real solid in a lot of areas. They have strong sticks on the puck. They make the right plays and to do that at this time of year is very impressive.”
Maine opens its Hockey East schedule at home against the University of Massachusetts on Saturday night at 7.