ORONO – The road to Milwaukee was bumpy at times last year for the University of Maine hockey team.

The Black Bears hope to find a smoother ride as they begin a journey toward St. Louis this season.

Maine was plagued by early losses and disciplinary issues early last season, but by playoff time, the Black Bears were rolling and reached the Frozen Four for the third time in five seasons. The Black Bears hope to build off those experiences.

Maine’s road back to the Frozen Four in St. Louis begins Friday night in Minnesota as Maine meets the No. 3 Golden Gophers in the Hall of Fame game. The Black Bears were ranked 11th in the preseason U.S. College Hockey online poll.

“All these guys we’ve got back got a taste of it last year,” defenseman Mike Lundin said. “We all got to the Frozen Four, and we all think that if we had a little bit more strength or energy, we might have gotten us a championship. So that was kind of hanging over our heads all summer and really motivated us.”

The Black Bears, picked third in the preseason Hockey East poll behind Boston College and Boston University, return a wealth of players from last year’s team that went 28-12-2. They also bring back lessons learned from last year’s good and bad experiences.

“We did go through a lot last year,” forward Josh Soares said. “We had great leaders last year in Greg Moore and Michel Leveille. We know what they did to do that. We’ve just got to keep that going and do our thing.”

Goaltender Ben Bishop and much of the defense returns. Bishop went 21-8-2 with a .907 save percentage and 2.29 goals-against average as a freshman. Though the blue line lost Steve Mullin and Travis Wight, four of the top six defenders are back. Joining Lundin are fellow veterans Bret Tyler and Travis Ramsey and sophomores Matt Duffy and Simon Danis-Pepin.

“Last year, the forwards were solid and the defense was kind of the question mark,” Lundin said. “This season, it’s a little bit the other way.”

Freshman defender Brett Carriere leads a promising group of newcomers who give the Black Bears the depth that has been a staple in past years. Teddy Purcell and Tyler Czuba could be impact freshmen up front while Dave Wilson is expected to be the backup goaltender.

The front line took the biggest hit. Maine lost four forwards – Greg Moore, John Hopson, Jon Jankus and Derek Damon. That’s 60 goals and 62 assists to replace, 43.4 percent of Maine’s goals.

“I think you’re going to have to see a few guys, Billy Ryan, Keenan Hopson, Michel Leveille, myself, Mike Hamilton and Brent Shepheard, add goals to their totals from last year,” Soares said. “If everybody can chip in three, four or five goals more this year, that will more than make up for it.”

Leveille and Soares are the top two offensive threats returning. Leveille had 16 goals and 24 assists, while Soares had 15 goals, nine on the power play, and led the team with 26 assists.

The only other double-digit goal scorer back is Ryan, who had 10 goals and 18 assists.

“We have players here that I am confident will emerge,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “Time will tell which ones and how much they elevate their game.”

Whitehead points out that Ryan and Tyler were both regular offensive threats when they weren’t out with injuries. With both healthy, they should add scoring punch. Tyler had seven goals and 16 assists from the blue line.

“Two things typically have to happen for a team to have a successful season,” said Whitehead. “You need your freshmen to impact the team during the year in a positive way. The second aspect is that you need returning players to increase their role and make themselves more valuable to the team. If both those elements happen as they did last year, you have the potential to do something special.”

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