ORONO, Maine — Red Gendron’s first 16 games as a college head coach are in the books and his University of Maine men’s hockey team is 9-6-1 overall, 4-2-1 in Hockey East.
The Black Bears have dramatically reversed last year’s trend at the Alfond Arena, going 9-1 compared with last season’s 2-9-6 mark.
But they will enter the second half of the season still searching for their first road win (0-5-1) and if they are going to climb into the national picture, they will have to do so away from Alfond Arena because their next seven games will either be at a neutral site or on the road.
“I guess the best thing to say about the first half is that we’ve put ourselves in position to do something if we can win more games than we lose in the second half,” Gendron said. “We’ve made strides in every facet of our game but we need to continue to make strides. We are nowhere near good enough to beat the iron of Hockey East by just showing up.
“What I liked is everyone has gotten better. They all worked hard and competed every night and that’s a plus.”
Sophomore center Devin Shore said the team needs to figure out its road woes.
“But anytime you go 9-1 at home in a semester is awesome especially in front of the crowd at the Alfond. We’ve got a lot of work to do but things are going in the right direction,” said Shore, the team’s leading scorer.
Maine has averaged 4.6 goals per game at home but just 1.5 on the road.
Shore said the team has improved steadily.
“We’re all in better shape thanks to our practices as well as the games. Guys aren’t afraid to make plays. We’re starting to make some nice plays and we’re working hard. That’s been our mantra the whole semester: our work ethic. That has to continue and we’ve got to develop the rest of our game. We’re always striving to get better,” added Shore.
Junior center Stu Higgins noted that they have put themselves in “good position to make strides forward in the national picture.”
“Looking back, there were games we thought we should win that we didn’t. But you can’t [look back]. We’re in good position, especially in Hockey East. We’ve got games in hand and we’re sitting in fourth place,” Higgins added.
Higgins said during the 7-1 and 5-1 wins over American International College (Mass.) over the weekend, the team did a better job “blocking shots and screening the goalie. Those are two things we need to keep doing so we can get even better.”
Sophomore right wing Ryan Lomberg said the team chemistry is “unbelievable.”
“We’d go through a wall for one another,” said Lomberg.
Maine is 13th in the country in goals per game (3.44) and 10th in team defense (2.19 gpg allowed). Last season, Maine finished 57th in offense (2.03 gpg) and 29th in defense (2.74 gpg allowed).
The penalty minutes are way down, from 14.5 per game a year ago (11th highest) to 8.6 this season (55th).
Maine’s special teams also are significantly better. The power play is ranked 26th at 20.3 percent compared with last season’s 13.7 percent (51st) and penalty-killing is 18th best (84.4 percent) after being 39th a year ago (81 percent).
Maine already has seven players with 10 or more points and sophomore defenseman Ben Hutton is tied for the national lead among defensemen in goals (7) and power-play goals (4). He is eighth in average points per game among blueliners (0.88). Shore is tied for 22nd overall in points per game (1.19) and 24th in assists per game (0.75).
Senior goalie Martin Ouellette is 14th in goals-against average (2.06) and 16th in save percentage (.929).
Freshman linemates Cam Brown and Blaine Byron are tied for 24th among the nation’s freshmen in points per game (0.69).
Shore (7 goals, 12 assists), who has a seven-game points streak (6 & 8), Hutton (7 & 7) and junior left wing Connor Leen (3 & 11) lead the team in scoring. Leen already has a career high with 14 points and Shore and Hutton have scored more goals than they did last season as has senior LW Mark Anthoine (6 & 7). Byron (6 & 5), Brown (2 & 9) and Steven Swavely (5 & 5) are the other Black Bears with 10 or more points.
Higgins (4 & 3) has set a career high for goals.
Brian Morgan (4 & 3) has teamed with Brown and Byron on the productive all-freshman line and Lomberg (4 & 3) snapped out of a slump with two goals and an assist on Saturday.
Freshmen defense partners Dan Renouf and Eric Schurhamer have supplied Maine with both quality and depth on the blue line while complementing veterans Hutton, Jake Rutt, Conor Riley and captain Brice O’Connor.
Gendron is embracing the grueling second-half schedule.
“How much fun is it to have a challenge like that? I’m not afraid of it. It’s great. We’ll see what we’re made of. We have to find ways to win games, no matter who we play or where we play,” he said.
Maine will next play Princeton, 3-12, in the Florida College Classic in Estero, Fla., at 4 p.m. Dec. 28. No. 15 Cornell, 7-4-2, and New Hampshire, 9-9-1, meet in the other first-round matchup. The consolation and championship games are the next day.