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Monday, Sept. 15, 10:41 a.m.
Sports

UMaine men’s hockey season right around the corner

The University of Maine men’s ice hockey team is ready to roll.

Coming off of their first appearance in the NCAA national tournament since 2007, the Black Bears were hoping to get back to the Frozen Four, a feat they last accomplished in 2007. However, the Black Bears fell to the defending champion University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs in round one of the National Tournament 5-2, and their dreams were put off for another year.

After the 2011-2012 campaign with a record of 23-14-3 and 15-10-2 Hockey East and losing five top-tier players to the National Hockey League, this year’s squad will have to look to their returning players and a talented freshman squad to fill the roles of the departed. The likes of Matt Mangene, Spencer Abbott, Will O’Neill, Brian Flynn and Ryan Hegarty will be tough to replace, but the team must move on. Senior forward and co-captain Joey Diamond thinks this year, the Black Bears will have to find success playing a different kind of game.

“I don’t think we’re going to replace them. We’re going to be a different team this year, we’re going to have to win some games — low scoring games, grind out games. There are a lot of roles everyone is going to have to accept this year and that’s the kind of team we’re going to have this year,” Diamond said.

Head coach Tim Whitehead could not have agreed more.

“Our goaltending is as strong as it has been since 2008 when Ben Bishop left. We’re going to have to play a different style; we might not be as dynamic on offense, but we will be better defensively. You can win in different ways, and you play to your strengths each year.”

With injuries to the team in the preseason, most notably sophomore forward John Parker, some of the defensive players have had to take offensive roles, including co-captain senior defenseman Mike Cornell and fellow senior defenseman Nick Pryor. Diamond and fellow senior forwards Kyle Beattie and Adam Shemansky will help lead the Black Bears offensively in Parker’s absence. Diamond led the Black Bears in goals scored last year, with 25. Add in his 22 assists, and Diamond had the third-highest amount of points with 47.  Beattie and Shemansky were sixth and seventh in points scored respectively and will have to do their duties as senior members and take the lead of the offense.

Shemansky is up for the task.

“We have to set our goals high if we want to be successful. Getting to the national tournament is always one of our goals. We feel if we stick to our systems and play consistent we have a team capable of doing that,” Shemansky said. “With experience our players will get better. It’s hard losing guys but every team loses guys and we can’t use that as an excuse. We have a good team this year and we’re confident that we’ll be able to make it back [to the tournament].”

A large part of whether they can continue the success of last year’s team will not only be the current players stepping up, but getting the new and younger players to accept the system. The team captains have been put in charge of that task and Whitehead is proud of the job they have done leading them so far.

“They’ve been doing a tremendous job, as I knew they would. There is great confidence in these guys, as well as our entire senior class. I really like how the seniors who are not captains are stepping up. They have been fabulous. These guys have been real supportive of the freshmen coming in. Two or three leaders are not enough in hockey, you need seven or eight guys to step up and lead, and I know this class is ready to do it,” Whitehead said.

The freshmen have shown improvements and have been picking up the game very well at the captain’s practices as well.

“They’ve been great. The seniors have done a great job molding this team in September. Starting Sept. 15 we’ve been able to get on the ice a couple hours a week, which we’ve done, and we’ve been really impressed. They’ve been well-schooled in their practices with the captains and they’re executing a lot of the fine points in the game,” Whitehead said.

Diamond, Cornell and senior defenseman Mark Nemec have been named the captains for this year’s team, and are impressed with the team so far.

“This fourth year, this is the most impressed I have been with this team, in the way we are practicing, the way we are competing in practicing. So we’re really excited,” Diamond said.

“I know we take great pride in coming back in shape. Unfortunately we only have a couple practices before we get going, but I feel like the guys are dialed-in and ready,” Cornell added.

Cornell went on to say that he has been lucky to have the captains who came before, and will use the knowledge he gained from them to lead this team.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to kind of have this similar role and been lucky enough to have great captains since I’ve been here. I’ve been trying to take a page out of [their] book and put my own spin on it. I’m fortunate enough to have Joey Diamond with me as well. Amongst [the three captains] we’ll be able to figure this thing out,” Cornell said.

Under the leadership of the captains, the team looks to be ready for the season opener against Quinnipiac University on Oct. 6. UMaine will also be participating in a preseason tournament called the Ice-Breaker Tournament in Kansas City, Mo. UMaine will be travelling out to play the tournament on Oct. 12 and 13, participating against the University of Notre Dame, the University of Nebraska Omaha and Army. The Black Bears’ tournament-opening game will be against Notre Dame, who will be joining Hockey East in 2013.

The Hockey East will be competitive as ever this year, with perennial conference leaders Boston College, Boston University, and the surprise success story of last year University of Massachusetts Lowell looking to maintain the top spots. BC won the national championship and UMaine took out BU in the Hockey East Tournament. UMaine, BC, BU and UMass Lowell represented the Hockey East in the national tournament last year. But UMaine rival University of New Hampshire was voted ahead of UMaine in the coach’s poll, Merrimack College is returning 18 players and the University of Massachusetts is returning 25 players. Outside of the BC, BU and UMass Lowell, this conference is a mystery and will be a tough one to navigate through, according to Whitehead.

“As always, UNH and Maine in every sport will be a great rivalry. We’ve also had tremendous rivalries with BC and BU and that will continue. BC will be the heavy favorite with their goaltender returning and so many talented players there. BU will be a team to contend with. The rest of us will be chomping at the bit to get home ice. As always it is going to be a very challenging season,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead assured that UMaine will be ready for its opener against Quinnipiac on Saturday.

“We can’t wait to start. Quinnipiac is a great opponent. To play one of the top teams in the [Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference] is going to be a great way to start the season.”

The Black Bears will start the season off with a weekend home series against Quinnipiac on Saturday Oct. 6 at 7 p.m. and the University of New Brunswick on Sunday Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. in the Alfond Arena.