University of Maine men's ice hockey practice on September 21, 2022 at Alfond Arena. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Following this weekend’s split against the No. 3 team in the country, it is clear that the University of Maine’s hockey team is significantly better than last year’s team.

UMaine went toe-to-toe with Quinnipiac, winning 4-0 on Saturday and losing 6-2 on Sunday.

Both games were closer than the scores indicated.

UMaine rode a four-goal third period and a terrific 33-save performance from Victor Ostman to win game one before Quinnpiac parlayed a four-goal second period and Yaniv Perets’ 29 saves to capture the second game.

The Black Bears were at a huge disadvantage, experience-wise.

Quinnipiac had nine players who had played at least 96 career college games, compared with UMaine’s two.

The Bobcats have three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and returned seven of their top 11 scorers and their Hobey Baker Award finalist goaltender (Yaniv Perets) off last year’s 32-7-3 team.

Among the seven defensemen who played for UMaine in the two games, four were freshmen and two were sophomores.

In fact, seven of UMaine’s nine defensemen are freshmen and sophomores, and the dramatic increase in mobility provided by the young defensemen is going to be an important asset moving forward.

Six of Quinnipiac’s 12 forwards have played more than 100 games but UMaine’s defensemen made them earn every scoring chance with their tenacity and quickness for most of the two games.

The defensemen are able to break the puck out of the defensive zone on their own or get separation in the defensive zone to make a safe breakout pass.

And none of the Black Bears — forwards or defensemen — are afraid to go into the high-traffic areas. They are fearless and physical.

Which is how they are going to have to play every night.

There were breakdowns on Sunday that led to goals, but it was both the forwards and defensemen who were guilty of mistakes and Ostman didn’t have one of his better games.

Four of the six goals came on initial shots and none were breakaways.

Good teams punish you for your mistakes and the motivated and talented Bobcats did just that.

UMaine second-year head coach Ben Barr knows his young team is going to have its ups and downs. They have proven this season that they can compete with the best teams in the country, but they can also lose to a bottom-third team like Bentley.

That is part of the learning curve.

One thing that has been consistent is the team’s work ethic.

Barr acknowledged that following Sunday’s loss, saying his team works extremely hard. They also have a high compete level.

The atmosphere in the Alfond Arena on Saturday night was electric.

It was like old times when the Black Bears were in the midst of their 18 NCAA Tournament appearances and 11 Frozen Fours.

There was a respectable turnout on Sunday afternoon but the warm, sun-drenched day and the NFL were hard to compete against and it showed in the attendance.

UMaine’s returning forwards are all better than they were a year ago and transfers Cole Hanson (Colgate), Didrik Henbrant (Alaska-Fairbanks), Justin Michaelian (Ferris State) and Michael Mancinelli (Arizona State) have been productive additions.

One of their best lines has been the all-freshman trio of Killian Kiecker-Olson between Thomas Freel and Reid Pabich and they are only going to improve as they continue to develop a chemistry.

Freshman Felix Trudeau could give the team a lift soon when he returns from an injury sustained in the University of Prince Edward Island exhibition game.

Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold, whose team beat UMaine 7-0 in an exhibition game last season, feels UMaine has made strides.

“I like their team a lot. I was really impressed with them on Saturday night. They are really well-coached, they were detailed and they have all bought in. If they continue to do that on a regular basis, they are going to have a good season,” Pecknold said.

UMaine is going to win games it shouldn’t win and lose games it shouldn’t lose.

The goal is for them to become more consistent and more fundamentally sound so they won’t lose to inferior teams.

If so, they could become a team no one will want to meet in the playoffs.

They don’t have any prolific scorers, but they have a lot of players capable of scoring 10-15 goals so they are going to have to drive the net front, screen the goalies and generate greasy goals from around the crease.

They did that on Saturday, but they weren’t able to get to the net nearly as effectively on Sunday.