The University of Maine men’s hockey team certainly didn’t want to go into the Christmas break with a 2-11-4 record.
UMaine’s 4-3 win over Union College (New York) on Saturday night was its first regulation win of the season, and the team is 1-2-3 over its last six games despite allowing only 10 goals.
The team has scored only eight goals in that span so Saturday night’s four-goal outburst, including its first power play goal in eight games (0-17), gives the Black Bears something to build on.
The Black Bears are unbeaten in their last three games, going 1-0-2, and are looking to take that momentum into the second half beginning with a first-ever series with Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania, on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
Both games will have 5 p.m. starts.
First-year UMaine head coach Ben Barr has mixed emotions about the break.
“Everything is still day-by-day but, to be honest, I wish we were still playing,” Barr said. “We are starting to figure out who we are a little bit. Hopefully, we’ll use the break to get our guys healthy. We have quite a few injuries.”
Left wing Matthew Fawcett, center Grant Hebert and right wing Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup are all sidelined with concussions.
Fawcett, a transfer from Quinnipiac who has a goal in eight games, has missed six games while Hebert and Schmidt-Svejstrup have missed the last three.
Robert Morris transfer Hebert has four goals and an assist in 13 games and Schmidt-Svejstrup has a goal and three assists in 12 games.
Another forward, Brad Morrissey, who has a goal and an assist in seven games, has also been sidelined by an injury.
Barr likes where the team is right now.
“We’re leaps and bounds ahead of where we were a month or two ago,” said the former UMass associate head coach. “Our defensemen have been much better, everything has been much better.”
He said it is natural that a team would improve as it gets used to a new coaching staff.
“I am proud of how the players have bought in. It’s hard when you lose that many one-goal games. But they have stayed with it. They haven’t gotten discouraged, which is good. There is a lot of character in that locker room.”
Eleven games this season were either decided by one goal or ended in a tie.
They are 2-5-4 in those games.
“If you look at our exhibition game against Quinnipiac [7-0 loss in October] to now, we’re a completely different team,” said graduate student left wing Keenan Suthers, who scored two goals including the game-winner in the win over Union. “Right now, we’re playing our best hockey. It’s fun because we’re so much better and I think we’ll prove that in the second half.”
Senior defenseman Jakub Sirota said it was nice to get the win before Christmas.
“Now we have that confidence of winning again. We can take it into the second half of the season and hopefully keep it going,” he said.
He agreed with Suthers that there is no comparison between this team and the one that got thumped by Quinnipiac, which is currently ranked second in the country in the U.S. Collegiate Hockey Online poll.
“We keep making steps week by week and hopefully we’ll keep it going,” Sirota said.
Sirota enters the break as the team’s leading scorer with nine points on three goals and six assists. His freshman defense partner, David Breazeale, has a goal and seven assists for eight points and sophomore center Lynden Breen has 2-6-8. Suthers is now up to 3-4-7, sophomore right wing Donavan Houle has a team-leading five goals to go with an assist and senior right wing Adam Dawe has 2-4-6.
Junior left wing Ben Poisson and junior defenseman Adrien Bisson each have three goals. Poisson has two assists and Bisson has one.
Despite his two mistakes that led to goals on Saturday night, sophomore goalie Victor Ostman has played with more consistency this season, as has junior goalie Matt Thiessen.
Over the last six games, they have combined for a 1.61 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.
Thiessen, who is still looking for his first career win, is 0-5-3 with a 2.73 goals-against average and a .898 save percentage while Ostman is 2-6-1, 3.01 and .897.
Following the Penn State series, UMaine will host Alaska-Fairbanks for a pair of non-conference contests before finishing up with 13 Hockey East games. UMaine is 1-8-2 in Hockey East.
Penn State, out of the Big Ten, is 11-8 and won’t play again until the UMaine series. Alaska-Fairbanks is 2-12 and will play four games before journeying to Orono on Jan. 7-8.
UMaine enters the break ranked 54th among 59 Division I teams in scoring (1.76 goals per game), tied for 35th in goals allowed (3 gpg), 56th on the power play (8 percent), tied for 25th on the penalty kill (83.3 percent) and as the second least penalized team (7.41 penalty minutes per game). The Black Bears are 45th in faceoff proficiency (47.9 percent).