Over the last few months, I’ve read a lot of negativity about the University of Maine Black Bears men’s hockey team on the pages of this blog. I’ve read that, after a season in which they finished two games over the 0.500 winning percentage mark, anything less than NCAA tournament berth in 2018-19 should be viewed as a colossal failure. I’ve even read that Head Coach Red Gendron should be shown the door midseason from my friend Jeff Solari.
I’ve kept my opinions to myself, but Ryan McLaughlin’s column last week linking the Maine Black Bears “disappointing” season to the same level of that as the Boston Celtics was as much as I could bare without a response.
First, if your expectations for the 2018-19 season were set on an NCAA tournament berth at the start of the season, your expectations were too high. That’s not a knock on the team on my part. That’s a recognition of the level of the play in college hockey now. In the last 10-15 years, college hockey has changed a lot. There’s a Big 10 hockey conference now. Penn State and Arizona State both have nationally ranked programs now. Neither had a DI program 10 years ago. I think if Maine had this very roster 15 years ago, it would be competitive for the top spot in Hockey East and would be in the national title discussion. That’s how much the level of play in college hockey has jumped in a decade and a half.
Writing that this team is a disappointment also discounts the gigantic leaps forward they have taken as the season has gone on. Since Solari’s “Fire Red NOW” column, Maine is 7-3-2. That includes wins over second-ranked UMass and tenth-ranked Providence. It also includes a three-game season sweep of Boston College. The last time that happened was the 2005-06 season.
Thanks to my new job this year as the play-by-play voice on the Maine Black Bears Sports Network on television (what a dream job for me, by the way!), I’ve gotten to see a lot of this team this season. It is playing its best hockey right now. Save for the first period on Saturday against BC, Maine put together it’s best two game weekend all year, by far.
They still have a chance to finish in the top four in Hockey East by season’s end, something even I discounted as little as two weeks ago. They’ll need to take care of business themselves and get some help to make it happen. It’s a longshot, but the possibility still exists.
The parity level in Hockey East is the highest it has been in years. Going into the final two weeks, positions 2-6 in the standings are separated by three points. Any team can beat any other team. All the bottom three teams have at least one win against teams in the top four this season.
Maine is rolling right now. Having won three straight and gone unbeaten over their last five, they are the type of team that will put some fear and doubt into opposing teams come playoff time. They are a team capable of going on the road and winning two out of three and advancing to Hockey East semifinals for the first time under Gendron.
You can dissect the season and where the program stands when the season is over. Let’s let it play out before we label the 2018-19 Black Bears hockey season a “disappointment.”
Television Voice, University of Maine Black Bears Men's Ice Hockey
Co-Host, Big Jab Saturday with Mannix & Mannix, WJJB 96.3/92.5 FM The Big Jab Sports Radio
Executive Producer, Maine Red Claws Radio Network