ORONO — The goal hasn’t changed, said Mark Anthione, a University of Maine junior forward from Lewiston, but the conviction has.
“Last year I don’t think anyone on this day would have said we were going to be playing in the tournament for the national championship,” he said Wednesday afternoon at Alfond Arena. “But every opportunity is there for us to do well, as long as we stick to our systems and work hard every day in practice.”
Anthoine and the rest of his Black Bear men’s hockey teammates donned their blue home jerseys Wednesday for the annual team photo and media session. Paul Ferguson, president of the school, stopped by to wish them well and remind them of their role as ambassadors for the school and the state.
Last March the Black Bears reached the Hockey East championship game and then took part, for the first time since 2007, in the NCAA tournament. Although they were eliminated in the first round by 2011 champ Minnesota-Duluth, the experience was invaluable for a program that, on paper, lost an awful lot of scoring.
“We’re going to be a different team this year,” said senior forward Joey Diamond, who tallied 25 goals and 22 assists last season and is the only returner with more than 30 points. “We’re going to play a different style. We’re going to grind games out and hopefully win a lot of low-scoring games with good goaltending and good discipline within our systems.”
Junior Dan Sullivan (22-11-3) returns as the starting goalie. Supporting him are back-up Martin Ouellette, a junior, and freshman Matt Morris.
“This is the most solid we have felt about our goaltending since (Ben) Bishop left,” after the 2007-08 season, Maine head coach Tim Whitehead said. “So at least, at the most important position on the team, we feel very steady, very confident. … Hopefully that will allow us to live with some growing pains with our young forwards and (defensemen).”
The Black Bears are scheduled to open their season a week from Saturday, hosting Quinnipiac at Alfond followed by a Sunday game against New Brunswick. One of their young forwards — freshman Will Merchant of Eagan, Minn. — will get a head start on the rest of his teammates.
Merchant will travel to Buffalo this weekend to participate in Saturday’s inaugural CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects game, featuring 40 of the top American players eligible for the 2013 NHL draft.
Frank Vatrano of Boston College and Matt Lane of Boston University are the only other Hockey East players scheduled to take part in the event.
“I just found out two weeks ago,” Merchant said Wednesday. “It’s a really big opportunity. I think it will really help me out for this year, before the season starts, and it will also help for my draft year.”
Maine’s freshman class includes two other players already selected by NHL teams. Vancouver drafted defenseman Ben Hutton of Prescott, Ont., and Dallas drafted forward Devin Shore of Ajax, Ont.
Other notables from the incoming class are forward Steven Swavely, who joins his brother Jon Swavely, a junior; and defenseman Kyle Williams of Bowdoinham. Williams, Anthione and sophomore defenseman Jake Rutt of Scarborough are the three native Mainers on this season’s squad.
“There’s no better feeling on a Friday night than suiting up and putting on the Maine jersey,” Rutt said. “I’m basically living the dream. This is what I wanted growing up and now it’s coming to life.”
This is Whitehead’s 12th season as head coach. On Tuesday he visited Boston for the annual Hockey East media luncheon. In pursuit of recruits, he returned to Orono via Toronto and Ottawa.
Because of NCAA regulations, Whitehead and his staff have been able to direct practices for only two hours a week since Sept. 15. The first regular practice is scheduled for Oct. 5th, the day before the game with Quinnipiac.
Shore, one of the new freshmen, said the captains — Diamond and defensemen Mike Cornell and Mark Nemec — have been putting the team through its paces.
“They lead very well,” said Shore, who took a shaving cream pie in the face from senior forward Kyle Beattie while doing a television interview. “I think we’re doing what we need to do to prepare for the season.”