February 2, 2012

Hockey East Journal: Maine's Pryor gets monkey off back

By Andrew Merritt

The season ebbs and flows. There are good weeks and bad weeks, and in a league where most games come in compact pairs, played over the course of two- or three-night weekends, each couplet offers opportunity and obstacle. 

University of Maine defenseman Nick Pryor (right) battles for position with BC's Pat Mullane. (Dave Arnold Photography)

When things are bad, the obstacles feel heavy enough to sink the ship out from under a team’s feet. When things are good, the boat only rises, and brings everyone with it.

Right now, things are very good for Maine. Unbeaten in its last five, and winners of its last four, it is entering the crucial final quarter of the league season in third place, just one point behind league leaders Boston University and Boston College.

Oh, and those last four wins? They happen to be back-to-back sweeps of BC and BU.

There are a lot of things going right for Maine these days, and on Saturday night, one of those things – for the first time in his career – was Nick Pryor.

The junior defenseman’s career isn’t quite what he’d hoped it would be when he came to Orono from Woodbury, Minn., three years ago. Severe injuries limited him to just 11 total games in his freshman and sophomore seasons, and in that limited time he’d amassed just two points – a pair of assists he picked up in a win over UMass on Dec. 12, 2010.

“I’m really proud of Nick; he had to fight through a lot,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “He’s had some serious injuries. His last year of junior I think he had a broken ankle, his first year with us he had hip surgery, missed the second half of the year, and then last year had a concussion, missed the second half of the year.”

This year has been different. He’s played in all but two of the Black Bears’ 24 games in 2011-12, plugging in on the third defensive pair with Mike Cornell and Brice O’Connor (Londonderry, N.H.). He had seven points – all assists – going into Saturday night’s game at Agganis Arena, where finally, after 2½  years of strife and patience, he picked up his first collegiate goal.

It was a blast, a rocket from the point off of an offensive zone face-off, won cleanly by Maine’s Joey Diamond. Pryor teed it up and fired it past BU goaltender Kieran Millan with 14 minutes to go in the second period, breaking a 1-1 tie. It held up as the game-winner as the Black Bears dropped BU 3-1, adding an empty-netter.

“It was great; it was good to get the monkey off my back a little bit there,” Pryor said. “It’s even better when it comes in a victory. It’s awesome; it’s a good feeling, but the most important thing is that we got the win, and that’s what counts.”

The shot was actually so hard, it ricocheted off a post and then the inside of the net fast enough to cause confusion about whether it had actually gone in, prompting a phone call to the video review booth at Agganis to get a better look. After 2½  long years, Pryor had to wait another couple of minutes to be credited with his first collegiate goal.

Once the game was over, he was able to reflect on the rocky road his college career has taken.

“I got an opportunity this year; I was fortunate to get an opportunity to play in our top six and play on the power play. I’m taking everything I can, playing confident in every game,” he said. “The last two years, we’ve had a really good ‘D’ corps, and it’s been hard to get in there. We’ve had some really good players the last two years. I think now that I got my opportunity, I’m making the best of it, and I’m going to keep improving.”

And if scoring a game-winner against a big rival wasn’t a good enough setting for Pryor’s first goal as a Black Bear, there was someone among the 5,847 watching to make it even sweeter: his father, Chris, who took time out from his duties as the Philadelphia Flyers’ Director of Hockey Operations to catch Saturday’s game.

“He doesn’t get to a lot of games, so it’s great that his dad was here,” Whitehead said.

Chris Pryor certainly knew how to pick his spot. On Saturday, his son did too.

Games of the Week

Boston University at Merrimack, Friday

There’s this little tournament that starts Monday night at the Garden, and we’re tempted to circle the Northeastern-BC Beanpot nightcap that night as our GOTW, but the BU-Merrimack clash Friday is a battle of a first-place team looking to hold on and a fourth-place team looking to stay in home-ice contention, so this one should be a real crackerjack.

Hockey East power rankings

 1.       Boston University (15-8-1, 12-6-1 Hockey East) – Normally we’d bump the Terriers after a sweep, but seeing that the Black Bears are looking pretty fearsome, and the other team tied for first place in Hockey East, Boston College, just got swept by Maine as well, we’ll give them a pass this week. Still, Jack Parker’s boys are on notice.

2.       UMass-Lowell (16-7-0, 11-6-0) – UML went to town against sister school UMass-Amherst over the weekend, outscoring the Minutemen 9-4 behind a breakout performance from freshman Terrence Wallin, and look ready to snatch a home-ice spot from neighbors Merrimack soon. 

3.       Maine (14-8-3, 11-7-2) – Four games against the league’s two top teams, four victories, and a crucial eight points that put the Black Bears just one point out of first place. Not bad for a team that started 3-6-2 this year.

4.       Boston College (16-10-1, 12-7-1) – BC finally snapped out of its funk, sweeping a home-and-home set with New Hampshire that would be a little more impressive, power rankings-wise, if the Wildcats weren’t having one of their worst seasons in recent memory.

5.       Merrimack (14-5-5, 10-4-3) – The Warriors made their only game count over the weekend, holding serve with a 4-2 win over Providence at home in their first game since top-line center Carter Madsen’s devastating injury.

6.       Northeastern (10-11-3, 6-11-2) – Time to crank up the Beanpot hype machine? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but the sweep at Vermont gave the Huskies some much-needed momentum heading into the weekend and the annual tournament.

7.       Providence (10-12-2, 8-8-1) – Saturday’s loss to No. 4 Merrimack was the last of a four-game string against ranked teams for Providence. The Friars went 1-3-0 in the stretch against BU, UMass-Lowell and the Warriors. Next up is a home-and-home with New Hampshire this weekend.

8.       UMass (9-10-5, 5-8-4) – The Minutemen couldn’t hang with UMass-Lowell in either game over the weekend, giving up an early lead on Friday and battling back into a 2-2 tie midway through Saturday’s contest before giving up three unanswered. Friday’s game at Northeastern is crucial for tiebreaker purposes as both teams look like they’ll be battling for one of the last playoff spots.

9.       New Hampshire (9-14-2, 6-11-1) – Boston College may not be its usual dominant self this year, but the Wildcats are even more off their usual pace, and it looks like the three-game win streak they enjoyed in mid-January was an aberration, not the start of a turnaround.

10.   Vermont (5-19-1, 2-15-1) – Trumbull, Conn., native Alex Vazzano made his first start in net since Nov. 27 on Saturday, making 24 saves on 27 shots in UVM’s 4-2 loss to Northeastern (which included an empty-netter).

Andrew Merritt can be reached at MerrittNEHJ@gmail.com