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Old 11-11-2006, 03:19 AM
irishrick
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Default best in the nation

Updated: Nov. 6, 2006, 7:50 PM ET
Maine jump-starts season with seven consecutive winsBy David Albright
ESPN.com


BOSTON -- With the 2006-07 college hockey season just a month old, there are still many more questions than answers.

The good news for many programs still trying to find their way is that there are five months to figure things out before the Frozen Four finds its way to St. Louis in early April.



Michael York
Michel Leveille has been a Bear on the ice for Maine.But there's little question about which team has been the best in the nation so far.

The Maine Black Bears, the nation's No. 1 ranked team at 7-0-1, have spent more time traveling than playing in the first five weeks, and they're one of only two teams that haven't experienced a loss.

Although you might not know it from the hang-dog looks on the players' faces following Saturday's 2-2 tie at Boston University.

"It's somewhat disappointing because we had that two-nothing lead," said assistant captain Josh Soares, who scored his fourth goal of the year to give the Black Bears the 2-0 advantage early in the first period. "But coming in on the road and playing a good team like this in their home rink, coming out with a tie isn't half-bad."

And not half bad against a Terrier team that swept Maine last season and that hadn't lost to the Black Bears at BU since 2004.

It was the first blemish for Maine on what had been a season-opening seven-game winning streak.

The Black Bears, who started the season ranked 11th nationally, opened in Minnesota against the Golden Gophers and left the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game with a 3-1 win. The Gophers, the No. 2 ranked team in the nation, have ripped off eight straight wins since then.

Two weekends later, Maine traveled to North Dakota and left Grand Forks with two convincing wins (6-2, 3-1). The Fighting Sioux are unbeaten (3-0-1) since then.

BU coach Jack Parker would welcome that kind of post-Maine luck right now; his Terriers (2-1-3) have struggled with injuries and inconsistencies.

"I was wondering in the first period what was going to happen to us after that first 10 minutes," Parker said. "But then I thought from the 10-minute mark on we started to turn it around. We looked like more of a BU hockey team than we had the last couple of games. Certainly Maine brought out the best in us."

That's something the Black Bears should expect the rest of the way in Hockey East.

It's also something they appear well-equipped to handle.

Remember, Maine advanced to the 2006 Frozen Four before it lost to eventual champ Wisconsin in the national semifinals, and the nucleus of that club is still skating in Orono this season.

The biggest loss was the graduation of captain Greg Moore, who is now skating in the New York Rangers' system.

He's been replaced by senior center and captain Michel Leveille, and the Black Bears haven't missed a stride to date.

"We've got a very strong captain," Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. "He's been an assistant captain for two years, so he knows how to lead. He's already been a leader and now he's the leader. He's been a big reason for our success.

"He's also our best player on the ice. It's pretty good when your captain is your best player and also a fabulous person. He trained so hard over the summer and our guys know that and have so much respect for him that it's very similar to Greg Moore last year."

The Levis, Quebec native leads Maine with six goals and is tied for the team lead with 12 points.

The second best player on the ice is goaltender Ben Bishop.

The 6-foot-7 sophomore also has impressive stats to go along with his 7-0-1 record. His .942 save percentage is tied for second best in the nation and his 1.41 goals against average ranks third nationally.

Although he can be an adventure when he ventures out of his crease to play the puck, the St. Louis native casts a very large shadow in net.

"Last year he had a real strong freshman year and lot of guys come back for their sophomore year and think automatically they're going to have a great year," Whitehead said. "And I think there's something to a sophomore slump, but Ben didn't take that approach. He wasn't satisfied. He knew he could play better and he's taken his game to an elite level. And that was his challenge this year. And this year he's a dominant player on the ice."

Another dominating player -- especially considering he's only a freshman -- is right wing Teddy Purcell.

The St. John's, Newfoundland native skates on the first line, and in his first eight games is tied for the team lead in power-play goals (3), assists (7) and points (12).

"Teddy's been a fabulous addition for us," Whitehead said. "He's an impact player in every way and he's been able to play in all situations -- first, last minute, power play, penalty kill. He's shown a lot of poise with the puck. He came into camp in very good shape so I knew he could log a lot of ice time. I'm just really impressed with how he's carried himself and the respect he has for the program."

Up next for Maine is a three-game home stand against Hockey East leader UMass-Lowell on Friday, No. 13 New Hampshire on Sunday and No. 3 Boston College on Nov. 19 (ESPNU, 3 p.m. ET).

The Black Bears are 8-0-1 in their last nine games at Alfond Arena, including three wins in front of standing-room only crowds in this still unbeaten season.

"A lot of little things have gone well," Whitehead said. "Any time you get on a good roll like this there's a lot of different things that happen. We've got pretty good chemistry, very good senior leadership and we're getting contributions from a lot of different guys."

There's no question about that.

David Albright is the senior coordinator for college sports at ESPN.com

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