It was a roller coaster ride of a season for the University of Maine men’s hockey team, and just like the amusement park ride itself, the parts going down really made your stomach turn.
The Black Bears finished 17-12-7 and never fell out of the nation’s top 20, but it was far under the national championship expectations the team had heading into the season.
Technically, the season isn’t over, as 11 at-large bids in addition to the five conference champions are selected for the national tournament. However, the Black Bears are a long shot to gain an at-large bid.
“The guys fought through a lot of adversity this year,” Head Coach Tim Whitehead said. “Although we had a winning record, it doesn’t feel that way. We wanted to do more; our fans wanted us to do more.”
The ups started early on, with a resounding sweep over one of the nation’s top teams, the University of North Dakota. The hard-hitting Fighting Sioux couldn’t keep up with the speed and technique of the Black Bears, and it looked like a season fit for a championship.
The Black Bears were brought back to earth by the Boston College Eagles, who handed UMaine their first shutout of the season Nov. 19.
The most memorable games of the season, however, were the heartbreaking battles against rival University of New Hampshire. The Wildcats delivered two crushing blows to the Black Bears, the first coming Dec. 10 when UNH rallied from two goals behind in the third period to win the game in overtime for the Black Bears’ first home loss of the season.
The second setback caused by the Wildcats could have been the difference between hosting Merrimack College last week and going on the road. After losing a shootout to the Wildcats 6-3 the night before, junior forward Gustav Nyquist came within a half-an-inch from taking the lead in the final minute of the series finale.
Nyquist’s shot clanked off the post and the ensuing rush resulted in UNH senior center Paul Thompson delivering the go-ahead strike.
“Certainly you can’t help but notice the Nyquist post-shot at UNH,” Whitehead said. “You’re half-an-inch from home ice right there. That’s the one everyone mentions. That shows you what a fine line there is in this game.”
The Black Bears missed hosting an opening round Hockey East Conference tournament series by two points.
Also to be mentioned, the Black Bears suffered a horrific number of injuries, with over 100 combined games missed by all injured players, including important pieces freshman goalie Dan Sullivan and senior defender Jeff Dimmen, who missed seven games each, and fellow defender junior Will O’Neill, who missed eight.
“The injuries speak for themselves,” Whitehead said. “108 games lost to injury is pretty significant.”
Barring that aforementioned miracle by the NCAA selection committee, the eyes unfortunately point toward next season, where a very different UMaine team could be featured.
Starting with who can’t come back, the Black Bears are graduating five seniors from this squad: center captain Tanner House, assistant captain defenseman Jeff Dimmen, defenseman Josh Van Dyk, center Robby Dee and defenseman Mike Banwell. Between those five, that’s a loss of 33 goals and 74 assists from this season.
“They’re tremendous,” Whitehead said. “I look at these five guys and this is as good a group as I’ve ever coached, not just as hockey players but as people. Over the last two years they’ve established the culture we’re so proud of at Maine hockey. They didn’t always get the wins everyone wanted but they certainly earned the complete respect of everyone in the community. You’re not going to find five better people than these guys.”
Another area of concern this offseason is the status of Nyquist and fellow members of the junior class who could decide to leave.
In addition to Nyquist, whose rights are owned by the Detroit Red Wings, O’Neill was drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers and although forwards Brian Flynn and Spencer Abbott remain undrafted, there’s potential they could sign pro contracts after stellar junior seasons.
“I’ve met with all the players who have an opportunity to sign early,” Whitehead said. “It’s their decision, but we discussed it and I gave them my advice and the positives and negatives of signing and the positives of staying. There really aren’t a lot of negatives to stay.”
Nyquist couldn’t be reached for comment before deadline.
If Nyquist and O’Neill both depart, the Black Bears will have an extremely hard time filling the gaps left behind on the regular lines and especially the power play. However, if both were to stay, the Black Bears could boast one of the most formidable power play units in the country with the four juniors and sophomore forward Joey Diamond.
One area that shouldn’t be a weakness looking toward the future is goaltending, where three young net-minders took their share of ups and downs as well.
Sophomore Shawn Sirman and freshmen Martin Ouellette and Sullivan got plenty of reps this season, with Sirman beating both North Dakota and BC, Ouellette shutting out Providence and Sullivan breaking current Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard’s consecutive shutout streak, keeping the net empty for 202 minutes and 49 seconds.
“Our goaltending will be better,” Whitehead said. “They’ve gained the experience and adversity — that’s how diamonds are made. We believe in these guys. I do know they will be outstanding college goaltenders.”