With the bullpens in the background, the Pesky Pole off in the distance and the Green Monster overlooking it all, the University of Maine men’s hockey team hit the ice.
The Black Bears are preparing for their second game of the season against the University of New Hampshire and their first under the lights of Fenway Park.
On an incredibly warm day in early January in New England, the Black Bears took to the rink — located in the center of the infield, behind the pitching mound of and stretching from first to third base.
“It felt good, the ice was pretty good. As soon as I step out there I noticed the fast ice much like a pond,” said senior defender Will O’Neill. “The air is great. You feel free, breathing in the good air, we’ll be happy to be out there.”
The Black Bears would be content hitting any skating surface playing the way they have been as of late, going 7-1-1 in their last nine games. The Black Bears have improved their record to 9-7-2 and 6-6-1 in Hockey East. In the midst of the hot streak, the Black Bears are hoping the unique setting and situation of the game doesn’t affect much.
“I think we’re going to try to not let it [affect us],” said senior center Brian Flynn. “We’re going to go about it like it’s a regular league game with two points up for grabs. We’ve been playing well as of late and we want to keep it going.”
The Black Bears main focus should be the two points, as it’s just two points that separate UMaine from the top tier of Hockey East. They welcome a UNH team that has been struggling as of late, losers of their last four games.
The Wildcats are 6-10-2 overall and 4-7-1 in Hockey East, alone in eighth place, while the Black Bears are tied for fifth in conference.
The Black Bears lost to the Wildcats in their lone visit to the Whittemore Center earlier in the season, and the two teams won’t meet again until the season finale in the Alfond Arena. UMaine had to give up a home game for the chance to play at Fenway.
“It was well worth it,” said UMaine head coach Tim Whitehead. “We talked about that at the time but it was a slam-dunk to come down. We’d give up a home game again. It’s a very unique setting and we’re excited to be apart of this signature event.”
It’s not O’Neill’s first time at Fenway, either. The Salem, MA native has visited the hallowed grounds since he was able to ride his father’s shoulders.
“I’ve come here since I was little. I remember when my dad would bring me and my brother and he’d buy two tickets and throw me on his shoulders and we’d walk in,” O’Neill said. “Every year I try to come to a couple games.
“I’ve got Big Papi’s stall, pretty excited about that,” O’Neill added, as the Black Bears have the privilege of using the Red Sox’ clubhouse as their locker room.
O’Neill’s also anchoring a defense that hasn’t allowed more than two goals in their last five games. A big part of that defensive performance has been the play of sophomore goalie Dan Sullivan, who has grasped the starting reigns for the Black Bears.
“A big part is [Sullivan’s] playing great,” O’Neill said. “He’s making it easy on the D. He’s been the backbone, we’ve given up plays and he’s made some big time saves.”
On the other side of the ice, the UMaine offense looks to continue their blistering pace, as they currently sit 12th in the country in goals per game with 3.33. Senior forward Spencer Abbott is second nationally in points with 30 and Flynn isn’t far behind with 28, good for fifth in the country. Adding junior forward Joey Diamond’s 21 points and you have a potent first line looking to put a couple in on UNH freshman goalie Casey DeSmith.
DeSmith is getting the second start of his career after UNH head coach Dick Umile benched senior goalie Matt DiGirolamo. DiGirolamo was pulled last game against Brown University.
“I’ve made a decision, Casey DeSmith will start the game tomorrow,” Umile said. “He has played solid and he has proven he can play at this level and we feel pretty good about it. Matt [Di Girolamo] is very positive and Matt’s an important part of our team, but Casey will be in the net at tomorrow night’s game.”
The Black Bears battle the Wildcats Saturday at 7:30 p.m. following the contest between the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the University of Vermont.