One of the signs of a good team is its ability to carve out a win even when it doesn’t play particularly well.
That was the case for the University of Maine’s surging men’s hockey team on Saturday night when it posted a 3-0 victory over Atlantic Hockey team Canisius College.
A Golden Griffins team came to Alfond missing 10 players due to injury and illness, including two of its top three goal scorers.
Canisius played a near-perfect road game.
The Golden Griffins clogged the middle of the ice and made it difficult for UMaine to generate high-percentage scoring chances. They also did something that has rarely occurred this season: they matched UMaine’s work ethic.
UMaine always outworks its opponents despite the Black Bears’ losing record.
But UMaine won the special teams battle 2-0 with a pair of power play goals and an exceptional penalty kill that limited Canisius to just four shots during a five-minute major.
This is a game the last two UMaine teams would have lost or tied.
The victory extends the Black Bears’ winning streak to four games, its longest streak since the 2019-20 team won five straight between Jan. 24 and Feb. 7, 2020.
It’s a noteworthy feat and a positive sign for the UMaine men’s hockey team, as this is only the third time since the end of the 2015-16 season that the Black Bears have strung together a winning streak of at least four games.
The longest winning streak during that time was in 2017-18, when the team won six straight.
UMaine enters the Christmas break with a 6-8-1 record overall, 2-5-1 in Hockey East. The Black Bears are one win away from equalling last year’s total when they went 7-22-4.
“We’ve definitely made some strides. There are a lot of good things happening,” said second-year head coach Ben Barr. “Our culture has gotten better. There is more accountability. We have been taking care of things off the ice as well as on the ice.”
He added that those things extend beyond just playing hockey, and also how the team handles itself as a program and a university.
“Everything matters. We’re getting close to being a real program but we still have a long way to go,” Barr said. “We have to keep improving”
The one constant for this team has been its work rate, which is why it has been able to overcome its youth and roster overhaul (16 new players) to go toe-to-toe with some of the nation’s best teams.
UMaine is still the only team to beat 14-1-3 Quinnipiac, the nation’s No. 2-ranked team in this week’s U.S. College Hockey Online poll. UMaine lost 1-0 and 5-3 with an empty-net goal at No. 6 Merrimack and two 3-2 games, one in overtime, at No. 10 UConn.
“We have a work ethic standard that enables us to stay in games,” said Barr, who didn’t feel Saturday’s work ethic was where it has been or should have been.
But he also said it was nice to win a game on special teams “because special teams had cost us games this season.”
UMaine’s special teams are trending in the right direction and that will be huge in moving forward.
The power play is 3-for-6 in its last two games after going 0-for-19 in its previous seven games. The penalty kill has one goal on 12 chances over the past three games after allowing four on only five chances in the previous two games.
And they have also received consistent goaltending from junior Victor Ostman, who has allowed two goals or fewer in nine of his last 10 appearances, including one or fewer in five of his last six starts.
“He has been making the saves he needs to make,” Barr said.
Ostman now has the ninth-best goals-against-average among 60 Division I teams at 1.94 and his .922 save percentage is 16th.
Part of his success can be attributed to a much more mobile and skilled defense corps that includes four freshmen regulars, graduate student and captain Jakub Sirota, and 2021-22 Hockey East All-Rookie team selection David Breazeale.
The blue line corps will be bolstered by the return of junior Dawson Bruneski, who has missed the last 13 games with an upper body injury but should be ready for the next two-game series at Colgate on Dec. 30-31.
All six defensemen as well as sophomore defensemen Sam Duerr, who has played in the last four games, have registered at least a goal or an assist in the four-game winning streak and have combined for four goals and 10 assists.
UMaine is also receiving balanced scoring with 11 forwards denting the scoresheet over the past four games, with six of them scoring goals.
The Black Bears will play 10 of their last 16 Hockey East games at Alfond Arena.
They will continue to have their ups and downs but they should become more consistent now that they are playing with more confidence and know they are capable of winning even when they don’t play their best.
But Saturday night’s performance isn’t going to cut it against a quality opponent, and they know that.
It is going to be an intriguing second half of the season.
A possible return to prominence may not be too far down the road if the trend continues and Barr and his staff continue to add quality players.