I’ll be one of the first to admit I despise Maine winters. Shoveling and scraping certainly are not preferred ways to start or end a day, and my wife and I certainly don’t intend to stay in Maine for the rest of our lives.
In spite of the unpredictability of Mother Nature, this is not a bad time of year to be a sports fan in Maine. The Patriots’ run to Super Bowl 50 starts with Saturday’s Divisional Playoff clash with Kansas City. The University of Maine hockey team begins its Hockey East stretch drive with a two-game home series with Connecticut, and the Celtics and Bruins are finishing up the first half of their regular-season slates.
On this particular weekend, the spotlight will shine on the Patriots and Black Bears.
New England hasn’t played a home game in nearly a month, and will entertain a hot Chiefs team which has won 11 consecutive games after a 1-5 start.
While the Patriots have not won since that last home game – a 33-16 win over Tennessee in Week 15 – coach Bill Belichick’s team used its bye week to get healthy. Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chandler Jones, Donta Hightower and Sebastian Vollmer are all expected to play against Kansas City.
It’s clear the Patriots’ offense has not been the same without Edelman, who suffered a foot injury against the Giants in November. But with Edelman back in the fold, Tom Brady will be able to get the ball out quicker and New England will be able to return to their vaunted spread offense.
Edelman’s return will also free up Rob Gronkowski more down the middle. In Edelman’s absence, we saw Gronkowski run down the sideline a lot and secondaries focused on him more. Look for James White to play the Dion Lewis role out of the backfield, and for Steven Jackson to have a prominent role in the offense.
While Kansas City has won 11 straight games, only three have come against teams with winning records (Pittsburgh, Denver, Houston). Kansas City took care of business against a Houston team that won the weak AFC South, and have a coach in Andy Reid who will certainly not be afraid of the big, bad Patriots.
The Chiefs do have a formidable defense, which features former University of Maine star Mike DeVito, but I’m not sure they have an offense capable of keeping up with the Patriots. Kansas City’s big-play receiver, Jeremy Maclin, will be hampered by an ankle injury suffered against the Texans, and quarterback Alex Smith isn’t a quarterback known for throwing the ball down the field. New England’s linebackers will have to be aware of Smith’s dink-and-dunk throwing tendencies and his ability to scramble out of the pocket.
Kansas City will keep it interesting, but the Patriots will pull away in the second half and win comfortably. This certainly won’t resemble last October when the Chiefs ran the Patriots out of Arrowhead Stadium, sparking the “We’re On To Cincinnati” battle cry.
The UMaine hockey team is coming off an up-and-down weekend in which the Black Bears split with ECAC foe Colgate.
The Black Bears looked sound defensively in a gritty 3-1 win last Friday, but looked lost in a 5-1 pasting at the hands of the Raiders on Saturday.
If there’s one thing I like about head coach Red Gendron, it’s his emphasis on short-term focus. Almost immediately after Saturday’s loss, the focus shifted to UConn, and rightfully so.
Maine sits in 11th place in Hockey East, but the Black Bears have only played eight league games, tied with Providence for fewest in the conference. Only four points separate the Black Bears from sixth-place Merrimack, while 10th-place UConn is only two points ahead of Maine.
While Maine has certainly struggled, the Bears have a chance to make a climb up the jumbled Hockey East standings. Teams that finish 5th through 8th in the standings earn home-ice advantage in the first round of the conference playoffs, and Gendron’s club needs to take advantage of the less challenging portion of its schedule.
While the Huskies have struggled themselves, they aren’t without top-notch talent. Freshmen Max Letunov – an Arizona Coyotes prospect – and Tage Thompson have combined for 40 points, including 17 goals. Junior goaltender Rob Nichols has the capability to steal a game, and the Black Bears will have to get traffic in front of him and take his eyes away.
It’ll be interesting to see who gets the goaltending nod for the Black Bears. Freshman Rob McGovern was solid in picking up his first collegiate victory on Friday while junior Matt Morris struggled in Saturday’s loss.
One key to finishing the season strong for the Black Bears will be finding a No. 1 goaltender that Gendron can stick with, and hope that he gets on a role and can steal a few games. Last Friday, McGovern flashed a bit of the form that he showcased in the season-opening Icebreaker tournament, and continuing his development could be vital to the future as Gendron continues to build the program back up.
Maine, which is averaging less than two goals per game, will need to take advantage of a Connecticut defensive corps surrendering more than 3 goals per contest. The Black Bears will also need to stay out of the penalty box, as Maine has racked up a whopping 309 penalty minutes in 21 games, an average of 14 per game. That’s not going to win you very many games.
I don’t see either team sweeping this series so I’m going to call a split here.