Jun. 11—The Maine Nordiques are heading to Minnesota to play for the North American Hockey League’s Robertson Cup after capturing the East Division championship Thursday.
The second-seeded Nordiques completed a three-game sweep of the fourth-seeded Maryland Black Bears with a 4-1 victory in the NAHL East Division final at Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton, Maryland.
Maine coach Nolan Howe said Thursday night that he thought from the start of the season that this year’s team had a chance to do something special.
“It was a belief we had that we built all year,” Howe said. “It starts with our character, we knew right at training camp we had a special group when it came to the character. They were willing and able to put in the work to develop through the season. Again, we were a team that made (only a few) transactions for the whole season; it paid off as far as our tight-knit family group.”
The Nordiques are the first team to secure a spot in the Robertson Cup, a tournament that features the NAHL’s four division winners. The clubs will be seeded 1-4 based on their finishes in the NAHL regular-season standings. The tournament starts June 18 in Blaine, Minnesota, with two best-of-three semifinal series — the No. 1 seed will take on the No. 4 seed and No. 2 will face No. 3. The semifinal winners meet in a one-game final on June 22.
Caden Pattison and Jack Strauss each had a goal and an assist for the Nordiques in Thursday’s win. Andrew Noel and Matt Conner also scored goals, and Stefan Owens, Isaiah Fox and Jackson Vercelleno each had two assists.
The Nordiques’ depth was key in Thursday’s win, as hit has been throughout the season.
“That’s what we built this hockey team on, and we continue to stick to our guns, whether we are up, down or tied,” Howe said. “We continue to roll four lines, seven defensemen and we got a lot of faith in all of our players, even the scratches, everybody.”
The Nordiques jumped out to a 1-0 lead when defenseman Andrew Noel scored his first goal of the postseason nearly five minutes into the first period.
Maryland responded midway through the first period. Forward Hunter McCoy beat Nordiques goalie Tyriq Outen (29 saves) for his second goal of the postseason.
“Maryland, I thought had their best period of the series. We weathered the storm to get out of that period 1-1,” Howe said. “Our game started taking over in the second and led to a dominating third period.”
Conner became the second Nordiques defenseman to beat Black Bears goalie Hannes Kollen (30 saves), and his goal gave Maine a 2-1 lead.
Strauss added an insurance goal early in the third period.
Strauss’ line struck again with under six minutes remaining in the game, as he and Vercellano set up Pattison’s goal that made it 4-1.
“It started with our forecheck. We were able to create some turnovers, and our special teams were fantastic again and they created some momentum for us with some big penalty kills,” Howe said.
The Black Bears were 0-for-3 on the power play, and Maine was 0-for-2.
The NAHL handed out end-of-the-season awards and announced all-star teams earlier this week.
Owens was named to the All-East Division Team. The forward, who recently committed to UMass-Lowell, tallied 24 goals and 27 assists in 56 regular-season games. In the playoffs, he has added two goals and eight assists in eight games.
Defenseman Luke Antonacci received the East Division Academic Achievement Award, and forward Tristan Fasig was awarded the East Division Community Service Award. General manager Eric Soltys was named the East Division GM of the Year.
The Nordiques were also named the East Division Organization of the Year.
“I am just really happy for our own (Darryl Antonacci), and I am really happy for the Lewiston-Auburn community,” Howe said. “We hope the support continues to grow because we have a fantastic product of terrific young men. I can’t say enough (good things) of the award winners. I think our GM Eric Soltys doesn’t get enough credit, he’s the absolute backbone of this organization. He’s willing to do anything and everything; he puts the organization first in everything he does.”
Zach Whitehead, the son of the former University of Maine Black Bears men’s hockey coach Tim Whitehead, has signed a tender with the Nordiques for next season.
The 5-foot-11 forward, who will turn 20 next week, spent this season in Sweden with IF Sundsvall Hockey J20 and potted three goals and three assists in seven games.
He played three seasons at Kimball Union Academy in Meridan, New Hampshire, where his father is the head coach of the varsity boys hockey team. In the 2019-20 season, he had 13 goals and 25 assists in 35 games with Kimball Union.
Two of Zach Whitehead’s teammates at Kimball Union, forward Liam Walsh and defenseman Nicholas Bernardo, were taken by the Nordiques in the NAHL Supplemental Draft. Current Nordiques defenseman Andrew Noel also was a teammate of Whitehead at Kimball Union.
A tender is a contract that gives a team a player’s NAHL rights, so the player cannot be drafted or signed by another NAHL team. The player, however, can sign with a team in another junior league.