The University of Maine’s men’s hockey season was like a feel-good movie with an unexpected ending that left a sour taste in your mouth.
The Black Bears created an upbeat and positive environment for its long-suffering fans that gave them hope for the future.
The Alfond Arena was rocking again as the Black Bears strung together a late-season seven-game unbeaten streak (4-0-3) that earned them the sixth seed for the Hockey East playoffs after they were picked to finish last in the preseason coaches poll.
But getting swept at home by the University of Massachusetts, a team below them in the standings, and then being bounced out in the first round of the league playoffs by last-place Vermont, a team it had swept in Burlington in the regular season, wasn’t the way the season was supposed to end.
UMaine has now lost its last seven Hockey East playoff games. It hasn’t reached the Hockey East semifinals since the 2011-12 season.
Maybe the Black Bears weren’t used to being a favorite. Who knows?
But the bottom line is that UMaine went from a 7-22-4 team a year ago to a 15-16-5 squad overall. In league play, the Black Bears were 9-11-4 after going 5-17-2 last season.
Second-year head coach Ben Barr said a first-round exit was a tough pill to swallow.
“It makes it hard to see the fans come back and how excited they are about the program, only to lose at the end like that. But that will only drive us going forward and motivate us to keep [improving],” Barr said.
“We were competitive every night. The foundation for going forward is there now. We didn’t have that last year. It’s a credit to Jakub Sirota and the older guys who carried the torch and laid the foundation for this program going forward.”
The future is bright, although you are never really sure who is coming back because of the NCAA portal and that student-athletes are allowed to transfer once without having to sit out a year.
The Black Bears’ biggest area of improvement was on the defensive side of the puck, where junior goalie Victor Ostman had his best season and earned All-Hockey East second team honors.
And he really benefited from having a much improved and noticeably more mobile defense corps with five freshmen joining two sophomores, a senior and graduate student Sirota.
Luke Antonacci (3 & 10), Brandon Holt (4 & 7) and Grayson Arnott (2 & 9) had impressive first seasons on the blue line. UMaine missed Holt over the last 12 games when he was sidelined by a broken finger. He had been among the top three defensemen on the team.
Antonacci led the team with 51 blocked shots.
“They did a really good job,” Barr said.
The other freshmen, Brandon Chabrier (1 & 4) and Robert Kincaid (no points) played in 29 and 10 games, respectively.
Swift-skating sophomore David Breazeale (1 & 12) was impactful as he was last season and was second on the team in blocked shots with 42. Fellow sophomore Sam Duerr (0 & 3) appeared in 22 games.
Sirota (6 & 10) had his best season and will have to be replaced. Senior Dawson Bruneski (0 & 2) appeared in just 20 games because he was sidelined with a broken finger and has another year of eligibility.
Ostman was 14-12-4 with a 2.21 goals-against average and .918 save percentage and had five shutouts. He allowed one goal or less in 12 games. He had a 3.31 GAA and a .900 save percentage a year ago.
He did allow 15 goals in his last five starts, possibly because of fatigue, so finding someone who can spell him will be important.
UMaine allowed 2.61 goals per game, 20th best among 62 Division I teams, after allowing 3.37 last season.
The Black Bears will have a quality defenseman joining the program next season in Ryan Hopkins, who had 9 & 31 in 41 games for the Penticton Vees in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League.
The defense corps should be even better and Ostman could again be in the running for the Richter Award that goes to the nation’s best goalie, as he is this season.
Latvian goalie Patriks Berzins, who was 6-1 with a 1.89 GAA and .914 save percentage for Tri-City in the United States Hockey League, will be coming in to join the program.
Back-up goalies Jacob Mucitelli and Connor Androlewicz saw very limited playing time this season so their status is up in the air.
Goal scoring was again the primary issue as UMaine’s 2.56 goals per game was 43rd.
Dynamic junior center and top point-producer Lynden Breen had a terrific season, leading Hockey East in goals with 21 en route to All-Hockey East second team honors. He also had 15 assists and led the nation with four shorthanded goals.
Senior right wing Ben Poisson (9 & 17), sophomore center Nolan Renwick (9 & 11) and junior right wing Donavan Houle (9 & 10) were the second, third and fourth leading scorers and should be even more impactful next season. Poisson has another year of eligibility remaining.
Renwick had nine more points than his freshman season.
Dependable Thomas Freel (2 & 13) had an outstanding freshman season, playing in all situations, and transfers Didrik Henbrant (7 & 9) and Cole Hanson (6 & 4) were productive until the end of the season. Hanson was pointless in his last 10 games and got hurt in the first period of the Vermont game and Henbrant was scoreless in his last six.
Henbrant is a senior but has another year of eligibility.
Freshman Aidan Carney (2 & 1), son of former UMaine All-American defenseman and long-time National Hockey Leaguer Keith Carney, was a pleasant surprise as a responsible fourth line left winger.
Barr said he is hoping transfer Michael Mancinelli (1 & 10) and freshman forwards Felix Trudeau (3 & 5), Reid Pabich (2 & 5), Killian Kiecker-Olson (1 & 4) and Parker Lindauer (0 points) can elevate their games next season.
Offensive help is on the way in New Brunswick brothers Bradly and Josh Nadeau, who play for Penticton and had 37 & 47 and 36 & 56, respectively, in 47 games for Penticton.
“They should help,” Barr said.
Anthony Calafiore (17 & 25) will join the team from the New Jersey Titans of the North American Hockey League.
Barr said the improvement on the ice has to be complemented by upgrades to the facility and better upkeep of Alfond Arena. The ice had to be repaired before the Saturday night UMass game last weekend.
Rink renovations, courtesy of the $90 million gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation for improvements to the athletic facilities, are scheduled to begin this summer.
Barr said the team was reprimanded by the league for the conditions of the ice, the boards and the plexiglass.
“We’re making progress. We have to get the renovations finalized. That will play an important role in how we can sustain this as we go forward,” Barr said. “The community, the school, the fans and the players deserve more than what we have now.”