ORONO – The one name most people could connect to the Maine hockey team’s defense was gone.
Goaltender Jimmy Howard chose to go pro just as the school year began. With graduation losses, the Maine defense didn’t exactly have an abundance of household names, let alone experience.
“That was obviously a big challenge for us,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “Losing Jimmy three days before classes started, that was our biggest issue, but we also lost Troy Barnes and Matt Deschamps. Those are big losses for us. Those are guys that played just about every game for us for four years.”
Still, the Black Bears have put together one of the best defensive teams in the nation. It is this no-name defense that has helped get the Black Bears to a 10th Frozen Four appearance in Milwaukee.
“(Goalie Ben) Bishop has proven himself,” said defenseman Mike Lundin. “The D’ core in general has proven themselves to be able to stand up to the top teams. Harvard was the best team in their conference. Then beating a team like Michigan St., they’re one of the best teams in the nation. I think that’s helped our confidence a lot.”
Whitehead says the success of the defense is a result of a couple of factors – returning players improving, the impact of newcomers contributing and utilizing a team defensive philosophy.
“The combination of those three elements have allowed us to become a very good defensive team in addition to being one of the top offensive teams,” said Whitehead. “I think we’re a very dangerous team this year because of that.”
Maine allowed 1.56 goals per game in 2003-2004 and were fourth in the nation a year ago, giving up 1.98. This year the Black Bears are still fourth, averaging 2.18. Only Wisconsin, Miami and Vermont had a lower average.
Maine also has the top penalty kill in the country with 89.1 percent efficiency.
“I’ve been extremely happy with our defense,” said senior Steve Mullin. “We came into this year, if you believed what you read, that we were going to be extremely weak in the back end with a couple of goalies that were untested. We kind of took that and put it up on the bulletin board and strived to be the best that we could be. I think for the most part, we’ve been able to accomplish that.”
Mullin is just one of two seniors on the blue-line. The other, Travis Wight, saw action in just 25 games the last two years. He’s been one of the bigger surprises, playing in all 41 games and doubling his career total in points with two goals and nine assists. His plus-17 was 10th in Hockey East and third among defensemen.
“He’s been our most improved player from last year to this year,” said Whitehead. “He’s emerged as such a strong, fierce competitor. That was the key ingredient. He really emerged as a great player for us.”
Whitehead says Mullin has been “rock solid,” while Lundin, a junior, has gone from a good player to a great one. Bret Tyler, a sophomore, has taken a significant step forward, while freshmen like Matt Duffy and Simon Danis-Pepin have made their presence felt.
“Like any year, you have guys that have elevated their game, and then you hope that the newcomers can help your team as well,” said Whitehead. “I think we’ve seen both.”
Another vital component has been the play of the forwards. The Black Bears have had a strong forecheck and done well pressuring opponents. Maine has also been strong as a team in its own end.
“We put the onus on our forwards to play good defensively,” said Whitehead. “For the most part, they’ve done that. Coming down the stretch here, that’s been the key to our strong team defense. Our forwards have backchecked hard and helped our defenders and our goalies be successful.”
Facing a balanced and potent Wisconsin team Thursday, the Black Bears hope for more of the same defensively.
“We want to keep focusing on what we’ve been focusing on all year,” said Lundin. “Forwards keep backchecking and playing great, and the defense just keeps it simple and does our job.”