September 24, 2019

Lofty goals still within Black Bears’ reach Playoffs best chance to offset slow start

The University of Maine’s goal-starved men’s hockey team has dug a hole for itself in its quest for a 10th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

But it hasn’t been due to a lack of effort.

For the most part, the youthful Black Bears have put forth an honest effort every night.

They were expected to have trouble scoring after losing players who scored 67.7 percent of their goals a year ago.

They certainly have.

Maine is averaging 2.07 goals per game and has been held to one goal or less seven times en route to its 5-7-2 record. It is 3-5-2 in Hockey East.

But rather than pinpoint specific deficiencies, the truth of the matter is this team is simply short on talent, experience and speed right now.

They have had a couple of years in which they were unable to attract elite offensive players and speedsters.

It was bound to happen. Every program goes through it.

Boston University hasn’t been to the Frozen Four in 10 years.

It appears as though Maine has addressed the talent and speed issues beginning with next year’s freshman class. Expect this year’s freshman class to improve in both areas, too, and create a solid foundation for the future.

Maine fans have been spoiled because the Black Bears entered the season with four Frozen Four appearances in six years, the nation’s best winning percentage over the previous 20 years (.713) and 17 NCAA Tournaments in the last 21 years.

The two seniors expected to lead the way in goal production, Keenan Hopson and Billy Ryan, have always been playmakers rather than goal scorers and they have been closely checked.

Senior Rob Bellamy has been, arguably, the team’s best forward, but he has never been a goal scorer.

To his credit, he has transformed himself into a constant threat by using his speed, toughness and ice balance to beat defensemen wide and win loose pucks in the corners.

Moving struggling junior defenseman Matt Duffy to forward was a good move as shown by his four goals in five games since the move.

Coach Tim Whitehead has been playing between six to nine freshmen. Eight have played in at least nine games, so far.

Freshmen can’t be expected to be big-time goal scorers because the adjustment from junior hockey to Hockey East is too dramatic.

The talented Andrew Sweetland has shown signs of eventually emerging as an elite offensive player, and Tanner House also shows a lot of promise as an effective two-way center. The other freshman forwards – Glenn Belmore, Keif Orsini, Lem Randall and Robby Dee – have shown glimpses of offensive potential.

Senior Wes Clark continues to lead the team in points (2 goals, 7 assists) even though he missed four games due to injury. Clark and Chris Hahn, who is out with a broken finger, should be key contributors in the second half along with Ryan and Hopson.

Whitehead has been playing three freshman defensemen in Josh Van Dyk, Mike Banwell and Jeff Dimmen, and they have been bright spots along with junior Simon Danis-Pepin, whose improvement has been impressive.

Senior captain Travis Ramsey has been steady on the blue line and Bret Tyler (4 goals, 4 assists) will have to continue to find ways to use his exceptional offensive skills because he has been watched closely, especially on the power play.

As for the power play, how can you not improve on a 6.1 percent success rate (4-for-66)?

A couple of suggestions for the power play:

Use the 6-foot-7 Danis-Pepin as a screener. He would tie up the defensemen as well as screen the goalie and he has great reach to get to rebounds.

Use Tyler as a screener to take advantage of his exceptinal hands (for tip-ins and rebounds) or allow him to freelance rather than be positioned at the point.

Another suggestion: put together an all-freshman unit, an all-senior unit (except have Danis-Pepin as the screener) and a third unit with a mix. Create daily competitions in practice.

The Bears also must attack the front of the net with more urgency.

This team has been better than expected defensively and needs to continue that trend along with being more consistently physical.

It has held teams to two goals or less in nine of its 14 games, but due to the goal-scoring drought Maine is just 4-4-1 in those nine games.

Opponents are averaging 2.57 goals per game.

So can the Bears climb back into NCAA Tournament position?

Probably not as far as an at-large berth is concerned. That would require a great record the rest of the way.

But they can do so by winning the Hockey East tournament to earn the automatic berth.

That is a realistic goal as it is for just about every team in Hockey East in this parity-accentuated season.

Maine already has shown it can hold its own with the upper-echelon teams. The Bears have two wins at league leader Northeastern, a 1-1 tie at Boston College and 2-0 loss (with an empty-net goal) at New Hampshire.

If Maine can earn home ice for the HE quarterfinals, it is 35-3 in postseason play at Alfond Arena. Then if the Bears win their quarterfinal series, they would be just two wins away from a Hockey East tourney title and NCAA berth.

Junior goalie Ben Bishop (5-7-2, 2.27 goals-against average, .923 save percentage) is certainly capable of shutting teams down, and Maine should be significantly improved by then.

Don’t count them out just yet.


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