The University of Maine’s hockey team won just one road game last season.
In their first game of the season, the Black Bears already got one road win, 4-1 over the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, last Friday night in the Ice Breaker Tournament.
The next night, defending national champion and current No. 1-ranked Denver beat them 3-1 in the Ice Breaker championship game.
UMaine had tuned up for the tournament with a hard-fought 1-0 exhibition win over the University of Prince Edward Island.
Second-year head coach Ben Barr said the first road series of the season showed him that his team has made significant improvement from last year, when the Black Bears went 7-22-4 overall and had a Hockey East mark of 5-17-2 that landed them in last place.
But there is still a long way to go.
“I liked the work ethic of our team,” Barr said. “We didn’t lose to Denver because we didn’t work hard. Denver is better than us right now.”
Barr said this team is in better physical shape than last year’s team and that it has players who are capable of making the plays the coaches want them to make.
He said the standards are higher this season and the culture is better.
“If we work as hard every night as we did in our first three games, we will give ourselves a chance,” he said. “There are a lot of things we have to get better at. That’s our job as coaches, to make our players better and our team better.”
Barr used the same lineup each night this weekend with the exception of the goaltenders and 10 of the 16 newcomers made their University of Maine debuts.
Clarkson transfer Jacob Mucitelli made 20 saves in the Air Force game and junior returnee Victor Ostman had 33 stops against Denver.
Barr said one of the unique qualities of his team is that there isn’t a noticeable gap in talent level between his players.
“They are all pretty much the same. I’ve never coached a team like this before,” said Barr, a former assistant coach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Union College, Providence College, Western Michigan and the University of Massachusetts.
“I felt bad that some guys didn’t get a chance to play on Saturday. But the guys who played on Friday played a real solid game,” Barr said. “The players who didn’t play are every bit as capable as anybody in our lineup.”
That competition for playing time is healthy and it is something they didn’t have last season because several players left or were injured.
“It’s a good problem for us to have. The guys who are in the lineup have to deliver or someone else will get a chance. That’s what you’re looking for as a coach,” he said. “That will drive the standards up.”
Barr said Denver magnified their weaknesses.
“We have to learn how to manage a game like that. We can’t turn the puck over, although that is easier said than done,” said Barr, who added that playing a team as skilled as Denver highlights how cohesive the team is.
“We were disjointed. We would make one good breakout pass, but the next one would be in the guy’s feet and every time that happens, good teams transition right back.”
His team needs to execute better out of the defensive zone, Barr said, acknowledging that his team performed well in the offensive zone against Air Force.
He said there will be a number of lineup changes on Saturday when his Black Bears visit Atlantic Hockey team Bentley in Waltham, Massachusetts, for a 5 p.m. game.
The Falcons, who have former Black Bear center Ben Murphy as their associate head coach, lost their opener to Boston University 8-2. They were picked to finish eighth in the 10-team league in the preseason poll.
“They’re a good team. We’re going to have to play really well to give ourselves a chance to win,” Barr said.
UMaine will take on No. 8 Quinnipiac for its homer openers Oct. 22-23 at 7 p.m. on Saturday and 4 p.m. on Sunday.