Image Courtesy of Getty Images/Boston Globe
BOSTON – The Hockey East regular season wraps up this weekend and, as you’ve probably heard, the Northeastern Huskies are locked in a fierce battle for home ice in the Hockey East octofinals. Fortunately for NU, the Huskies have an ideal opponent for a must-win weekend: the Maine Black Bears.
Maine is locked in to the 11th seed in the Hockey East tournament regardless of this weekend’s results, winding down the 2016-17 slate with 10 points and an abysmal 4-14-2 conference record thus far. This season has seen very few positives for Red Gendron’s Black Bears. They’re 10-18-4 overall, but their 6-4-2 out-of-conference record is propped up by 5 wins against the likes of AIC, Rensselaer, and Brown. Maine is routinely outshot (35.5 to 28.3 shots per game; 46 CF% at even strength, 51st in the country), and is just 2-14-4 when that’s the case. The team rarely mounts comebacks (2-11-3 when the opposition scores first) and is still winless on the road (0-11-4). The Black Bears have the 47th ranked defense in NCAA Division I (3.31 goals allowed per game), the 30th ranked offense (2.88 goals per game), the 36th ranked power play (17.53%) and the 43rd ranked penalty kill (80.6%). In short, this is a bad hockey team that doesn’t do anything particularly well.
What separates Maine from the truly bad teams in college hockey, though, is the presence of some talented players despite the poor team results. The Black Bears have scoring depth; the terrible 2015-16 team had just 9 players with 10 points or more, the 2016-17 edition has 13. Senior forwards Cam Brown and Blaine Byron lead the way, each of them in the middle of career years. Byron has 16 goals and 34 points; Brown has 35 points, including 31 assists that rank him third in the NCAA. Junior forward and Toronto draft pick Nolan Vesey has taken a step forward, posting 9 goals and 19 points. Most impressive – and most encouraging for the future of Maine hockey – is the 76 points contributed by a remarkable freshman class. Red Wings draft pick Chase Pearson has been the most impressive, potting 13 goals, good for 2nd on the team behind Byron.
This quality scoring depth has also been supported by solid goaltending. Sophomore Rob McGovern has played to the tune of a .916 save percentage and a 2.86 GAA in 26 games played. Senior Matt Morris has also received significant playing time, though with much poorer results (405 minutes, .885 save percentage).
Last year, Northeastern kick-started its run to the Hockey East title with four wins over Maine in a row at Matthews Arena. They’ll try to do the same this year by aiming for a sweep in Orono – and they have no excuse not to nab 4 points. This is especially the case with Morris expected to get a start in his last series at Alfond. McGovern could pose a challenge as well, but with three players hovering around 50 points for NU, I don’t see the Maine goaltender giving the Huskies too many fits. Ultimately, I think this series again comes down to Ryan Ruck. If he plays like he has of late, NU will be fine. If he starts to struggle again, though, there’s enough scoring talent in the Black Bear ranks for things to get out of hand quickly.
Davis (17-11-2): Maine 4-3, NU 5-2
Downie (17-9-4): NU sweeps, 4-2, 6-3
Fallon (18-10-2): NU sweeps, 5-3, 4-2