For the first time since the 2001-02 season, the University of Maine men’s hockey team swept Boston College and Boston University in back-to-back weekends.
While head coach Tim Whitehead said “it was a bit crazy,” he also said he was proud of his team for rebounding after what was a tough start to the season.
“We found different ways to win,” Whitehead said. “We’ve been relying a lot on our power play, but the desire and heart of players to block shots [has emerged].”
If heart is measurable in wins, then the Black Bears have had it in spades recently, going 11-2-1 since Thanksgiving. And each weekend another member of the Black Bears seems to momentarily lift the team onto his shoulders.
While junior forward Matt Mangene’s four goals against Boston College helped propel the Black Bears to victory, sophomore goalie Dan Sullivan’s stifling of the vaunted Boston University offense was the main factor in UMaine’s weekend sweep of the Terriers.
“Sully’s really making big stops and solidifying that position,” Whitehead said. “Dan has benefited from the experiences he’s had and is an extremely hard worker. He’s very coachable and it’s one of his biggest strengths — he’s a student of the game.”
While Whitehead was surprised a couple of weeks ago when the Black Bears toppled the Eagles with little help from the top line, he is pleased that it has continued.
“The secondary scoring has really emerged on a consistent basis,” he said. “We’re seeing some of our sophomores — Jon Swavely, Mark Anthoine, Brice O’Connor — come into their own and become factors on the team. In college sports when you can lose kids early, those young players are asked to step up.”
In the weekend series against the Terriers, six different Black Bears scored, with freshman forward John Parker the only one doubling up.
Their recent stretch of games catapulted the Black Bears to No. 15 in the country and tied them for 10th in PairWise rankings, which mimics the tournament selection process of the NCAA.
In addition, UMaine jumped to third in Hockey East, good for a home playoff series if they stay in the top four. At the moment, the Black Bears’ 24 points stack up at one point less than co-leaders BC and BU and one ahead of Merrimack College. The University of Massachusetts-Lowell is the odd team out in fifth place with 22 points.
The rest of the Black Bears’ Hockey East schedule has them feasting on the bottom dwellers — save for Lowell — while teams like Merrimack still need to tussle with the top dogs.
UMaine’s remaining conference schedule includes traveling to Providence College for a game, then an important contest at Lowell before finishing the season at home against the University of New Hampshire.
“We’re never comfortable,” Whitehead said of his team’s current standing in Hockey East. “And we want to make sure our players are never comfortable. We know how difficult it is to win in this league on any night, against any opponent. Perhaps it may look like our schedule is [easier] down the stretch, but in our eyes, everyone is desperate down the stretch, including us.”
The Black Bears have a rare off week in conference play when they welcome the University of Alabama-Huntsville to the Alfond Arena this weekend.
Despite a paltry record of 2-24-1, the Chargers are tougher than their performance suggests. Alabama-Huntsville is comfortable playing on the road, with just 12 games at home compared to 19 away.
The most impressive of their wins came on the road at Denver College, when Denver was ranked No. 11 in the country. Two weekends ago they lost two one-goal decisions at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, ranked No. 1 in the country.
“You don’t want to see a letdown against a team whose record is subpar,” Whitehead said. “However, there is no doubt in my mind, after watching video and looking at their recent results, that this is a much-improved team since Christmas. They can come to any venue and challenge you.”
The Black Bears’ series with the Chargers begins Friday at 7 p.m. in the Alfond.