Coach Ben Barr instructs the University of Maine men’s hockey team during a preseason practice in Orono on Sept. 30. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

The University of Maine men’s hockey team had to cancel a two-game series last weekend because of COVID-19 cases in its program, but Coach Ben Barr is confident the Black Bears will be able to play games Friday and Saturday in Orono against Alaska-Fairbanks.

“We’ve got four guys back the last two days, two guys back each day. Alaska’s already up here. They got here (Monday). I think we’ll be fine,” Barr said Tuesday. “The challenge for us will be to ensure we get the rust off of some of these guys who have been in the can the last five to 10 days.”

UMaine was scheduled to play two games at Penn State last weekend. Those cancellations were the first COVID disruptions for the team this season.

The Black Bears were shut down twice last season because of COVID. A weekend series against UMass-Lowell was canceled in mid-December; earlier in the season, the entire athletic department was put on pause from Nov. 24 to Dec. 8, 2020.

This time, the team was able to continue practicing through its COVID-19 outbreak. Barr said the Black Bears are fully vaccinated, and the COVID cases in the program have been either mild or asymptomatic.

Tuesday’s practice was the first in which Barr had a majority of his team on the ice since returning from the holiday break. Practices over the last week focused on individual skill development, and featured a lot of one-on-one skill attention.

With the second half of the season coming up and a full slate of Hockey East games after this weekend’s nonconference series against Alaska-Fairbanks, the focus for the Black Bears (2-11-4, 1-8-2 in Hockey East) is on improving an offense struggling to score. Averaging just 1.76 goals per game, Maine is 56th out of 59 Division I teams in scoring. Only Vermont, Brown and St. Thomas have scored less.

Over its last three games, Maine began to generate more scoring chances. The Black Bears had 51 shots in a 1-1 tie against Vermont on Dec. 4, and 52 shots in a 1-1 tie vs. Union on Dec. 10. In their last game, a 4-3 win over Union, Maine had 42 shots. When the Black Bears have an odd-man advantage or a rebound opportunity, they have to find that killer instinct and score. Scoring three goals per game would put the team in position to win more games, Barr said.

“We talked about it yesterday with our guys. The first half, we were so focused on our compete level. I feel like we made huge strides in that as a program. Two or three of those last games we played, we had 40, 50 shots on net, and scored one goal. We have to find a way to take advantage of our opportunities and not just be happy to get them,” Barr said. “I know we’re capable of doing it. Some of these guys have been good producers in juniors.”

Fans attending this weekend’s home games face updated COVID safety protocols. Beginning Tuesday, the UMaine System requires anyone 5 or older attending an indoor event with more than 250 people to show proof of vaccination or a negative test taken within 72 hours of the gathering. Previously, the protocols applied to those 12 and older.

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