The University of Maine men’s hockey team rewarded the vocal homecoming crowd Saturday, earning its first win in four season games, but the ninth-ranked defense in the 10-team Hockey East Conference will have to do a better job of keeping the puck out of its net this weekend to keep pace with the experienced offense of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Minutemen and the University of New Hampshire Wildcats on Olympic-sized ice.
The Black Bears (1-3-0) will travel to the Mullins Center in Amherst on Friday and finish the weekend set in Durham, N.H., on Saturday at the Whittemore Center. UMass’ home ice is 10 feet wider than Alfond Arena’s, while the Whittemore Center’s is 15 feet wider. This creates a tendency for play to drift too far outside the faceoff dots and for goalies to over-commit to the near post. UMass and UNH have the only Olympic-sized rinks in Hockey East.
“I think it’s good to have [both games on Olympic-sized ice] back-to-back, because then the preparation can be very similar,” UMaine coach Tim Whitehead said. “They’re both tough places to play.”
UMaine has allowed 4.5 goals per game through the first two weeks of the season, and while Whitehead said improving the execution of team systems is paramount, some extra focus has been placed on protecting the net-front.
“The key right now, if there is one common denominator, I’d say would be keeping the puck out of the net,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead thought sophomore goalie Scott Darling struggled with nerves in his first start of the season on Friday but was more composed Saturday night. Darling and senior Dave Wilson — who was between the pipes for the season opening weekend at Union College — have allowed at least three goals in each game. Both carry goals-against averages above 4.00.
“I thought [Darling] settled down nicely the second night, with the exception of that third goal that caught him by surprise,” Whitehead said. “I thought he had a real solid game.”
UMass (2-0-0) is on the brink of breaking into the top 20 in national polls after a 3-2 win against defending National Champions Boston University on Friday. Their explosive offense is led by junior All-Hockey East selection James Marcou (15 goals, 32 assists, 47 points last season) and All-Rookie selection Casey Wellman (11-22-33). Freshman forward Rocco Carzo chipped in a pair of goals in his first two games for the Minutemen.
UMass returns 21 members of last year’s team and took Northeastern University to a decisive third game in their Hockey East Quarterfinal. The Minutemen were picked seventh in this year’s Hockey East preseason coaches’ poll, one spot ahead of UMaine.
“I think people are underestimating them,” Whitehead said. “I think they’re going to be very tough to beat this season.”
UMass is averaging a goal per game more than the Black Bears, whose offense is paced by Hockey East scoring leader Gustav Nyquist, with four goals and two assists. Freshman winger Adam Shemansky scored a goal in each of the Union games and sophomore Spencer Abbott has a goal and three assists. Shemansky and classmate Matt Mangene both assisted on two goals in Saturday’s win.
“It was very exciting,” Mangene said. “The crowd was in it the whole game, and getting those two assists was awesome.”
Senior center David deKastrozza adds experience on the power play unit while junior captain Tanner House is recovering from a leg injury and has not played in a game. DeKastrozza notched a goal in both games against Michigan State.
“[DeKastrozza] was tremendous,” Whitehead said. “Particularly with Tanner out, I thought David really stepped up on faceoffs, on net front on the power play, on penalty killing, playing center. I thought he was just fabulous. He’s worked extremely hard to prepare himself for this season, so I’m confident he’ll continue to play strong.”
UMaine’s special teams net production is the best in Hockey East. They have scored seven goals on 28 power plays and two shorthanded goals. Their power play is third most efficient in Hockey East, while the penalty kill ranks ninth. UMass ranks second in special teams net.
“If we can keep [power play goal production] going, I think it will give our team a good shot to win,” said junior center Robby Dee.
UMass’ defense corps will be stingy at the net front and contribute offensively. The Minutemen have allowed 2.00 goals per game, with two-way defensemen Matt Irwin and Justin Braun leading the returning group of blue liners. Irwin had an 18-point freshman season.
Junior goalie Paul Dainton is the primary backstop, with capable senior Dan Meyers in relief. Dainton started both of UMass’ games to start the season.
UNH (0-2-1), picked fourth in the preseason coaches’ poll, also touts an experienced net minder in senior Brian Foster, who is fully recovered from an ankle injury that hindered him near the end of last season. The Wildcats graduated three defensemen, so Foster’s play early on while new lines gain familiarity will be critical to their success.
“They’ve got a lot of guys back, and they’re always very competitive,” Whitehead said. “I’m sure that they’ll be raring to go when Maine comes into town.”
UNH is the only team in Hockey East with a worse goals-against average than the Black Bears. They have allowed 4.67 goals per game in a loss to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a loss and tie against Miami University of Ohio.
Scoring leader James van Riemsdyk turned pro after his sophomore season but was followed by a trio of returning 30-point forwards in Mike Sislo, Peter LeBlanc and Bobby Butler. Butler and sophomore defenseman Blake Kessel lead the Wildcats with five points, while LeBlanc follows with four. UNH has finished with a 40-point scorer in each of their last 20 seasons.
“Both [UMass and UNH] are really quick. They’re built around speed,” Mangene said. “We’ll definitely be able to keep up with them.”
The earliest Whitehead expects House to return to the lineup is the following weekend when UMaine returns to Alfond Arena to host the University of Vermont. Redshirt freshman defenseman Mark Nemec will be out for at least three to four more weeks with a broken thumb he sustained in the second game at Union.