Black Bear Hockey continues its journey back to greatness

MaineThe season has changed to autumn.  The calendar has turned to October.  Those two things mean just one thing in Black Bear Nation…the University of Maine men’s ice hockey team is back!

Ice hockey is the sport that put UMaine athletics on the map.  It’s also the sport that delivered the University of Maine its first NCAA national championship.  In fact, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last 48 hours, that 1992-93 Black Bear hockey team was recently (and rightly) voted the greatest college hockey team of all-time in a come-from-behind online poll victory over the hated 2008-09 BU Terriers.  In spite of Maine’s rich hockey history and that 42-1-2 team’s deserved recognition in the NCAA’s “Frozen Four’s Finest” poll, it’s time to look forward, not back, and examine the 2014-15 Black Bears’ chances in Hockey East and in national competition.

To put it bluntly, Red Gendron’s peers in Hockey East put Maine’s chances in the upcoming season at “not good”.  Specifically, the Black Bears were picked to finish 9th in conference in the Hockey East preseason coaches’ poll.  However, as Coach Gendron recently told Fill The Steins, “I don’t spend much time evaluating our opponents at this point in the season and I don’t think the other coaches do, either.”  In other words, Coach Gendron, his staff, and his team, aren’t putting much stock in any preseason rankings.

Despite the perceived relative weakness of Maine’s team heading into this season, the Black Bears are returning multiple players who made enormous contributions to last year’s team.  At the top of that list are junior forward Devin Shore and junior defenseman Ben Hutton.  Shore was the Bears’ leading scorer in 2013-14, with 43 points on 14 goals and 29 assists.  For his part, Hutton was the team’s leading goal-scorer, making him the first defenseman to ever lead Maine in goals for a season.  His 15 goal tally on the season was also the most ever for a defenseman in UMaine hockey history.

In addition to the experienced offensive firepower, Maine is also welcoming back a somewhat-familiar face at goaltender.  After sitting out last season on a medical redshirt, junior goalie Matt Morris returns to the squad this year and is expected to see most of the action between the pipes.  Morris was 2-1 in limited action during the 2012-13 season and maintained a 2.83 GAA and .881 save percentage in those appearances.  Behind Morris in net will be newcomers Sean Romeo from North Carolina and Bangor’s own Chris Howat.

It’s not only at goaltender where the Black Bears are young.  Beyond the two freshman goalies, Maine welcomes four freshman forwards and two freshman defensemen into the fold for the upcoming campaign.  Perhaps the fact that nearly 30% of Maine’s roster is made up of freshmen helps explain why Coach Gendron’s fellow Hockey East coaches are, pardon the pun, bearish on Maine’s potential results this year.

With so much youth on the roster, it will be important for Coach Gendron and his staff to know where his team stands and how they’re gelling very early in the going.  Without question, they’ll get that litmus test from Maine’s early-season schedule.  After Sunday’s exhibition game against perennial Canadian power New Brunswick, the Black Bears will head to Alaska for back-to-back games against Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks to officially open the 2014-15 campaign.  From there, Maine will return to Orono to take on defending national champions Union College on Homecoming Weekend.  Fill The Steins doesn’t see any cakewalks there, so Coach Gendron, and the rest of Black Bear Nation, should have a really good idea of what they’re going to get after those first five games.

At the end of the day, how the Black Bears fare this season will likely come down to two things…the quality of play from the goaltender position and the quality of results on the road.  Matt Morris, despite being a veteran within the program, is a virtual unknown, not only because he only had three decisions in 2012-13, but because no one knows how an athlete will perform after missing an entire season with injury.  In hockey, as the goalie goes, so goes the team, and if Morris can’t deliver at a high level, Maine will have to rely on freshmen to pick up the slack, which could be problematic.

As for Maine’s road play, well, we don’t need to tell you it was atrocious last year.  It’s hard to be much better than a .500 overall team when you only win one game on the other team’s campus.  If this season’s Black Bears can find a way to pull out victories from the nail-biting road situations that all-too-often ended in heartbreaking losses for last year’s Black Bears, Maine will surprise people and far exceed that aforementioned 9th place conference forecast.

We think the answer will be somewhere in the middle.  While Maine’s road play HAS to improve (it does have to, right?), it’s hard to imagine a team so loaded with youth replicating last year’s 13-3 home record, even with all the advantages Alfond Arena provides.  Bottom line, we think this season will be a bit of a holding pattern for our beloved Black Bears (predicted record: 15-15-6), but a season in which young players will gain a tremendous amount of experience to set Maine up for great success in Coach Gendron’s third season behind the bench.

Just how great will that long-term success be?  As a fellow UMaine alumnus often tells us, “Hard tellin’ not knowin'”.  But we DO know that we in Fill The Steins Nation are excited to go on the ride with Coach Gendron in his continued quest to restore our dearest hockey program to the greatness it deserves.

How do you think the UMaine hockey team will do in the upcoming season?  Share your predictions in the Comments section below and join the conversation on Twitter using #FillTheSteins!

 

Photo courtesy: Matt Dewkett Photography

 

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