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Maine looks to turn crunch time into their time

Thursday, 02.03.2011 / 9:00 AM / On Campus

By Bob Snow - NHL.com Correspondent

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Maine looks to turn crunch time into their time
A storied NCAA program over the past several decades, Maine enters the stretch run looking for a return to prominence after missing the tournament the last two years.
One of the most storied programs in NCAA play since joining Hockey East in the 1980s, the University of Maine boasts 17 tournament appearances, including 11 trips to the Frozen Four, five title games, and two national championships. 

The legendary Shawn Walsh built the Black Bears into the sport in Maine, and national prominence behind the bench with two of the most memorable championship games in NCAA history -- 1993 and 1999 -- with the latter coming on the heels of an unprecedented three-year tournament drought. Walsh's warriors also lost one in between -- the 1995 thumping by BU, 6-2.

After Walsh lost a courageous battle with kidney cancer 10 years ago, his assistant, Tim Whitehead, continued the program's success highlighted by two gut-wrenching, one-goal title-game losses: in 2002 to Minnesota in OT, 4-3, and in '05 to Denver in a 1-0 final.

The recent 2009 and 2010 teams did not qualify, barely missing the at-large bid that comes off national ranking or winning the Hockey East Tournament and automatic bid.

What's in place and what needs attention with the 2011 team to end this current drought, and assure that Whitehead's team takes Maine back on a deep run into late March and maybe a sixth shot on April 9 for all the marbles in Saint Paul?

"The team has taken a lot of swings," said Whitehead about Maine's 11-7-6 record with 10 games left in the season. His Black Bears are once again on the bubble -- shifting among Nos. 10-15 in the national polls, and in the middle of the league pack.

A surge these final weeks appears in order off a good swing since mid-January after a humiliating 7-1 loss at Merrimack to start the new year.

"The Merrimack game was a good motivator to sharpen the saw and get back to the little things that make any team successful. Fortunately, we got two wins, not just a moral victory of playing hard," said Whitehead about the overtime win at home against Providence, and the rock-solid 4-1 effort two days later over national champion and currently No. 1 Boston College on January 16.

The past two weekends resulted in a 3-3 tie against Northeastern, and a 1-1 knot and 4-3 loss to BU in a back-to-back barnburner last weekend at Alfond Arena.

"The next challenge," Whitehead said, "is for us is to play on the road like we play at home (8-2-3). Not easy but it's our next step." 

Not easy, indeed.

That next step is a two-game series this weekend against league-leading and archrival New Hampshire just south of the Maine border in Durham.

"The keys first and foremost, it's intensity and effort," Whitehead said. "We flipped that around for the Providence and BC games. We added the poise against BC to make plays under pressure. Key goals in key games build confidence. I don't think this team will be overconfident."

Why?

"We've got some great competitors in a great junior and senior class who I'd go to battle with anytime. I love these guys. It's a question of bringing it on a consistent basis. That separates your good teams from the great ones."

Guys like senior horses Jeff Dimmen and junior Will O'Neill on the blue line -- and junior scoring leaders Spencer Abbott and Gustav Nyquist, who led the nation last year with 61 points, and was among the final three for the 2010 Hobey Baker Award as the nation's best player.

"He's huge, a fierce competitor," Whitehead said about his co-captain Dimmen. "Poise under pressure and takes pride in his defense. That type of player can inspire."

Abbott and Nyquist are packaged for speed-skill-kill.

"He has elite skill," said Whitehead about Abbott. "He is such a strong player pound for pound. He used to play lacrosse up in Ontario at a very high level, and you can see that in how he protects the puck. He has ice in his veins in traffic."

Nyquist, assistant captain and a Detroit pick in the 2008 Entry Draft, has Swedish ice in his veins. The Malmo native chose to return to school for another shot at furthering Maine's legacy.

"My family and I made the decision to come back and I was very excited about this year," Nyquist told NHL.com "We have a great team and I want to be a part of that. Our fans show us positive things.

"The last month we've trained real hard. We've been evenly matched and if we keep playing real hard like the past four games, we'll have a good run to the playoffs. The biggest difference between last year is the experience we have."

Except in goal.

That question mark looms big -- and still unanswered in 2011 -- in a program that sports names like Garth Snow, Mike Dunham and Jimmy Howard in its 24-square-foot history.

"It's been a real interesting ride with the goalies," Whitehead said. "We have two freshmen and a sophomore [Dan Sullivan and Martin Ouellette, and Shawn Sirman]; very young and very inexperienced. All three have had some gems with the 'D' playing well."

Into this weekend, the stats for all three in playing time and goals-against average are comparable.

"It's a hard decision to make about which one takes over," Whitehead said. "Sirman was great against BC. I'd like one guy and know who the backup is and the third guy, but we're just not in that situation. It's absolutely wide open. Last year, we had a great team, but goaltending was also a major issue for us."

How do the Black Bears get over such a dilemma?

They'll depend on Mike Cornell and Mike Banwell to complement O'Neill and Dimmen on defense, and look to Robby Dee, Brian Flynn, Tanner House and Joey Diamond to continue the firepower up front to team with Abbott and Nyquist. 

"I'm really excited about the last part of the season," Nyquist said. "Our goal is the NCAAs. We have 10 games left and we're all very focused to play our hearts out every game. Then make the run for the whole thing. If we play Maine hockey, I think we're capable of doing that."

"This team has finally recognized that to be successful we have to play great team defense and we have to be in the moment the entire 60 minutes," Whitehead said. "If we can do that we can compete with anybody. That's our challenge. So we'll see how we do."

Walsh would tell the media: "It's how you play in February and March that counts."

It's February.

Time for the Black Bears to come out of their den and play some Maine hockey.
 
On Campus Clips: Alaska's junior goaltender Scott Greenham made 27 saves Friday in a 1-0 overtime win over Ohio State to set a new program record with his eighth career shutout. ... The Western Michigan Broncos extended the longest undefeated streak in the nation to 11 games (7-0-4) with a sweep of Northern Michigan last weekend, 5-2 and 6-1. ... February brings the stretch run to the league tournaments in early March. The current league leaders are RIT in Atlantic Hockey, North Dakota in the WCHA, New Hampshire and Boston College tied in Hockey East, Yale in the ECACHL, and Notre Dame in the CCHA. ... Current scoring leaders include Miami's Andy Miele with 49 points, Niagara's Bryan Haczyk and Paul Zanette in goals with 22, Miele in assists with 34, and Colorado College's Tyler Johnson in power-play goals with 11. John Faulkner's five shutouts for Nebraska-Omaha are tops among goaltenders.
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