ORONO – They used to be the hunted.
Now they’re the hunters.
The University of Maine men’s hockey team used to have a target on its back thanks to nine straight NCAA Tournament appearances and four Frozen Four berths in six years entering the 2007-2008 season.
A victory over the Black Bears carried extra significance.
But Maine’s 13-18-3 record last year and ninth-place finish in Hockey East, and the Bears’ predicted ninth-place finish this season, have removed the target from their backs.
So the roles were reversed Sunday when Maine posted its 2-1 victory over Boston College, ranked second in the nation coming into the weekend.
The Bear veterans are getting used to their new roles as underdogs.
“Obviously, we’re the ones that were ranked ninth in Hockey East at the beginning of the season and we’re the ones who aren’t [nationally] ranked right now. Teams come here thinking Maine’s not what they were two or three years ago. That’s a good thing,” said senior defenseman and co-captain Simon Danis-Pepin.
“With the age of our team, we need to be an underdog. Going into every game as an underdog will make us play harder.”
Senior center Chris Hahn recalled going into visiting rinks his first two years and hearing the opposing fans chant “overrated” when the Bears fell behind.
“This year, it’s almost a fun position to be in, getting to play these teams with everyone writing us off. It’s a challenge. It’s fun with a young team. It’s exciting,” said Hahn.
Senior center and co-captain Jeff Marshall said being an underdog “isn’t such a bad thing.”
“Obviously, after last year, everyone thinks we’re rebuilding. We know where we stand in this league. That win helped solidify to everybody else that we mean business,” said Marshall.
The victory matches Maine’s win total against Top 20 teams all of last year as the Bears went 1-8-2 against ranked teams. A 5-3 win over No. 8 Clarkson in the first round of the Florida College Classic was the only triumph.
“It gives us confidence and shows us that when we play well, we can play with anyone in the country. At the same time, we’ve got to move on. We can’t pat ourselves on the back for too long because we’ve got two big games against Providence and they’re always tough in their rink,” said Hahn.
“We can’t get complacent. We took a big step forward but if we get complacent and satisfied, we’ll take two steps back at Providence,” said Marshall.
“It was a good step for us, but it’s just one step in a 36-game season,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “The key is for the players to understand that every week is going to be a tough challenge for us. It was encouraging, but it’s time to put it behind us and focus on Providence.”
Solomon provided a boost
Black Bear freshman left wing Kyle Solomon gave the Bears a lift against BC by returning to play the third period after suffering a head injury when he absorbed a hit from 6-foot-3, 215-pound defenseman Nick Petrecki along the boards in the second period.
Solomon was attended to by Maine trainer Paul Culina and, after an eight-minute delay, he rose and left the ice with a towel behind his ear.
He received seven stitches behind the ear from Dr. John West III and returned to action.
“I didn’t see [Petrecki]. He kind of came in behind me and clipped my side. My head hit the ledge on the boards,” said Solomon. “I got a nice gash behind my ear. I wasn’t unconscious or anything like that. I was a little disoriented.
“I recovered really quick and got the stitches. I felt pretty good. My adrenaline was pumping pretty good and that took away a lot of the pain,” added Solomon. “With a game like that, with the crowd and that kind of environment, you’re playing BC and you’re up 1-0, you want to do everything you can to get back out there.”
“That showed character on his part. He’s as tough as nails,” said Maine sophomore left wing Glenn Belmore, who also supplied inspiration by playing regularly in his debut after missing the first six games with a knee injury.
“When you see guys [Solomon and Belmore] gutting it out like that, it really helps the rest of the team,” said Marshall. “You see somebody coming back after a nasty hit and continuing to work hard and not shying away shows the guts of the team and the character we have.”
Belmore, who used a knee brace, said his knee feels strong.