College hockey anaylsis: Lighter schedule awaits Maine in second half

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The University of Maine’s men’s hockey team closed out a forgettable first half of the season in appropriate fashion at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland on Saturday night.

For the fourth time this season, Maine lost despite taking an early lead into the third period. UNH turned the game around with four third-period goals to beat Maine 7-4, leaving the Black Bears at a dismal 4-13-1.

Now the Bears have been all but eliminated from any NCAA Tournament consideration. They are tied for 53rd among 59 Division I teams in the Pairwise Rankings that emulate the NCAA Tournament selection process.

The only way they could make the NCAA field is by winning the Hockey East Tournament to earn the automatic bid.

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But it’s highly unlikely, although there really isn’t a dominant team in the league. The current leaders are UMass Lowell, Boston University and Vermont, who are a combined 21-4-5 in conference play.

Maine showed it can compete with those three teams even though it did go 0-7 against them.

The problem is a team has to win one or two best-of-three series to reach the single-game Hockey East semifinals and it’s hard to envision that Maine, a team that struggles to put together a strong 60-minute performance, being able to win a best-of-three series.

The difficulty for second-year head coach Red Gendron and assistants Jay Leach, Ben Guite and Ray Jean is they can’t just focus on one or two problem areas.

This team is 40th in scoring (2.39 goals per game), 53rd in defense (3.72 goals allowed per game), 47th on the power play (11.6 percent efficiency) and tied for 45th on the penalty kill (79.4 percent).

The team doesn’t have an identity other than it works hard.

It isn’t a fast or a physical team, although it has elements of both in the lineup. It doesn’t score goals or play good defense with any consistency.

So even though this team could put together a three or four-game winning streak in the second half, it won’t extend more than that.

On the positive side, the Black Bears’ nine goals in the two games vs. UNH is the most it has scored in back-to-back games that didn’t extend to overtime.

All-American center and captain Devin Shore, who had just one assist in the seven games leading up to the UNH series, had four assists against UNH.

But he has since gone nine games without a goal. The productive weekend against UNH could give him the confidence boost he needs.

Shore, with 11 points (4 goals, 7 assists), is on pace to produce 22 points, which is 21 fewer than last season.

He takes his captainship and the team’s performance personally, so he needs to relax and have more fun on the ice. Adding more physicality to his game also would help him especially with his pro career on the horizon.

Fellow junior All-American Ben Hutton, a defenseman who is on pace to finish with eight goals after scoring a nation-leading 15 a year ago, seems to be emerging from his slump with two goals and three assists over his last three games to give him 4 & 6 on the season.

But this isn’t just about Shore and Hutton, this is about the entire coaching staff and every player taking steps to get things turned around in the second half.

It’s about the forwards making smart decisions with the puck, driving the net front and backchecking with commitment and intelligence. Hustling back to the defensive zone will only help if players pick up their man once they get there.

Sophomores Blaine Byron (8 & 6) and Cam Brown (5 & 8) lead the team in scoring and have been bright spots. Byron has scored a goal in three straight games and has 4 & 1 in that span.

Veteran regulars Steven Swavely (3 & 7), Connor Leen (5 & 2), Brian Morgan (3 & 4), Will Merchant (1 & 3) and Stu Higgins (no points in 6 games) need productive second halves and promising freshmen Nolan Vesey (2 & 4), Malcolm Hayes (3 & 2), Liam Pecararo (1 & 4) and Cedric Lacroix (1 & 2) should become more influential with a semester under their belts.

For the defensemen, it’s about winning those 50-50 battles for the puck, gapping properly so the opposing forwards can’t generate a head of steam in the neutral zone, keeping things simple and preventing opposing forwards from parking themselves unattended in front of the Bear’s net.

The defense corps has been adequate but prone to mistakes.

Hutton is the only defenseman with more than four points, but that’s fine as long as the Bears keep the puck out of their net. Still, if the opportunity to jump up into the attack is there, they should take it.

Freshman Sean Romeo had been giving the Black Bears the goaltending needed to have success, but after a strong three-game stretch, he struggled in the third period against UNH. So junior Matt Morris could be back in the picture.

The coaching staff will have to decide if Romeo, Morris and freshman Nik Nugnes, who has yet to play, can supply them with the consistent goaltending.

A team goals-against average of 3.67 and save percentage of .884 isn’t going to win many games.

If they aren’t confident they can receive consistent goaltending, they’ll have to bring one in for the second semester but he will have to be somebody who can step in and contribute immediately.

This team also needs to toughen up mentally. It needs to develop a swagger and put teams away when it has the lead. It also needs to start fast and not keep having lackluster first periods.

Maine is 2-4 when leading after two periods. That’s unheard of. In nine of the previous 10 years, they hadn’t lost more than one game when ahead on the scoreboard after 40 minutes.

In 2008-2009, they were 11-3-2 when leading after two periods.

Another quirky tidbit is that the current Black Bears have a better record when the opponents score the game’s first goal (3-8) than they do when they score first (1-5-1).

In nine of the previous 10 seasons, they had winning records when scoring first. In 2012-13, they were 6-6-1.

Maine is also 0-6 in opposing team’s rinks to make its record 1-18-3 since the start of the 2013-14 season.

The good news for this team is that Friday night’s 5-2 win over UNH in Manchester, New Hampshire, snapped its eight-game losing streak.

And the second-half schedule isn’t as difficult as the first half’s slate.

Seven of Maine’s 13 losses have come to teams ranked in the top 10 in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll. And three of those losses were in overtime on the road. Ten losses were to top-20 teams.

Just one of the Black Bears’ final 18 games are against a top 10 team: the Jan. 16 home game against UMass Lowell.

Maine returns to action when it hosts 6-6-5 Canisius College from Buffalo, New York, on Jan. 2-3.

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