It wasn’t that long ago that a year like 2015-16 would have been unthinkable for Maine hockey.
Eight wins. That’s it. In a whole damn season. And not one of those wins came against a team with a record of .500 or better. And really, it wasn’t just last season. Maine hockey has been putrid for years, less than a decade after making two consecutive Frozen Fours.
There are a lot of reasons why the Black Bears haven’t been consistently good for a long time. Coaching problems have been obvious, but more to the point the recruiting just hasn’t been there. Red Gendron and Tim Whitehead before them could still get a handful of good players, but depth routinely fails them. With more schools in Division 1 than ever, it’s hard to attract kids to a college that’s 20 miles from nowhere, and whose last national title — which you still hear about endlessly — came when they were in diapers. It’s not a new problem, and it’s why they have one 20-win season since 2007-08.
The athletics budget has been slashed, though the hockey team was still revenue-positive as of a few years ago. But attendance is down (consecutive seasons of 11, 16, 14, and then eight wins will do that) and the school is cutting ticket prices to hopefully draw more fans. Meanwhile, some alumni are trying to raise money for an endowment that can keep the program strong (“strong” being a relative term, one supposes) going forward.
But as we’ve seen time and again in sports, the only thing that’s really going to get people excited about a program, and buy the tickets and hats and jerseys that go with that excitement, is by actually winning. Maine’s attendance is down because so their goalscoring has been pretty close to the bottom of college hockey. It’s no great mystery.
That brings us to this year. Maine was picked to finish dead last in Hockey East by the league’s coaches, and the media pegged the Black Bears 11th of 12 teams in the conference. In short, everyone kind of expected more of the same. And yet!
The first weekend of the season, Maine hosted RPI, by no means a team with much national standing. It did, however, sweep the Engineers, outscoring them 9-3. RPI is the textbook definition of a mediocre program, which is a type of team that would have manhandled the Black Bears just last season. The sweep led to a little bit of “How ’bout those Black Bears?”-ing from some in the college hockey media, who already have a genetic predisposition toward thinking your most recent result is a definitive indicator of your quality.
But hey man, they already had a quarter of their win total from the previous year. Most people would have picked a split at best, if they wanted to be terribly kind to the low-expectation Black Bears. But they held RPI to 1 for 13 on the power play over the two games, and goalie Rob McGovern stood on his head with just three goals allowed on 71 shots. Freshman Mitchell Fossier had a hat trick the first night and scored again on the second. So maybe you give ’em a little tip of the cap and move on.
Not wise to dwell too much on a single weekend’s home results, especially not with Quinnipiac — one of the newly minted titans that arose in recent years to take Maine’s place atop college hockey — coming to town the next week.
But then, what’s this: The Black Bears won in overtime on Friday?
And then forced OT before eventually losing the next night?
Okay, well, that’s just weird. One feels like the hockey gods made some sort of actuarial error. You could write off two wins over RPI, but a courageous split with Quinnipiac? Man, who’s to say?
Last season, Maine opened with ties against three straight opponents, one of which was North Dakota, the eventual national champions. That, too, gave people a lot of confidence this team might have finally reversed — or perhaps, re-reversed — its fortunes. Then they didn’t get their first actual win of the season until late November.
Obviously these Black Bears, with seven freshmen on the roster (three of whom are drafted) have overcome that winning issue and then some; their third win of the season didn’t come until after Thanksgiving last season.
Just to get a little housecleaning out of the way: This is probably a good amount of smoke and mirrors. Their 108.7 PDO at full strength probably doesn’t stay that high long-term. And yeah, they’re a slightly negative possession team right now. And McGovern’s save percentage in the .930s probably regresses back toward the .905 he posted last year. And Fossier’s five goals on 16 shots is not likely to hold up either.
They also played both these series at home, with their opponents logging hundreds of miles on buses to get there. The Alfond Arena has never been an easy place to play, and last season their home/road split told that story pretty well: They went 6-8-3 at home (.441, pretty bad) and just 2-16-3 away from Alfond (a horrifying .167).
Their next games are two at Miami, two at Colgate, then two against Boston College and two against UMass Lowell. It is entirely conceivable they lose all eight. That really wouldn’t be surprising at all. Miami recently split at Providence, Boston College is still super-talented even if they’re off to a rocky start, and Maine hasn’t beaten Lowell since 2013. At least Colgate isn’t that good.
What this all means is that before we start clearing our March schedules for a trip to Orono for a playoff round or two, maybe we don’t hold our breath on this whole “Maine is good now” thing. There have been a huge amount of weird results so far in college hockey because most teams are playing less than half their games at 5-on-5 any more.
But hey, no one on earth had the Black Bears three games above .500 at any point in the season, so I guess right now we can grudgingly say, “How ’bout those 3-1 Black Bears?” But say it fast, because saying “How ’bout those 4-8-3 Black Bears?” won’t be as fun in early December.
A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)
North Dakota (beat RPI)
Minnesota Duluth (split with Notre Dame)
UMass Lowell (swept at Colorado College)
Notre Dame (split at Minnesota Duluth)
Boston University (got swept at Denver)
Denver (swept BU)
Quinnipiac (split at Maine)
Minnesota (beat the US U-18 team)
Boston College (split at Wisconsin)
Michigan (beat Ferris State)