WORCESTER — In the moments after a season-ending loss, team captains like Maine's Will O'Neill have little use for individual milestones.
Make no mistake, however: By scoring his 100th career point, O'Neill hit an exceptionally rare milestone for a college hockey defenseman that puts him among the game's elite offensive d-men.
With two assists in Saturday's 5-2 loss to Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA tournament's Northeast Regional at the DCU Center, O'Neill become just the seventh defenseman in Maine history to reach 100 career points.
The Black Bears (23-14-3) were making their first NCAA appearance of O'Neill's career, and he helped them grab a 2-0 lead with a pair of early helpers. Duluth, the defending national champions, stormed back to grab the lead by the end of the second, and held Maine to just three shots on goal in a dominant third period.
That brought an end to O'Neill's remarkable career patrolling the blue line in Orono, Maine, a town some 235 miles north of Salem that's home to one of college hockey's truly special programs.
"It's the end of the best four years of my life. It's a very special place; I love Maine. This doesn't feel very good — not to be dramatic, but it stinks," O'Neill said.
Drafted by the then-Atlanta Thrashers in 2006, O'Neill agreed to terms with the Winnipeg Jets last night. He's slated to report to the franchise's first-place American Hockey League affiliate, the St. John's IceCaps in Newfoundland, Canada, tomorrow.
Despite the stinging end, O'Neill graduates with 19 goals, 82 assists and 101 career points. O'Neill had a career-best 30 assists and 33 points this season and is the first Maine defenseman to reach 100 points since Peter Metcalf did it in 2002.
While playing in every situation for the Black Bears, O'Neill was one of only two defensemen in the nation this season to reach the 30-assist benchmark. With the 6-foot-1, 200-pound O'Neill quarterbacking, Maine's power play has consistently been among the nation's best the last four years.
Beyond his offensive instincts and tremendous passing ability, O'Neill's leadership with the "C" on his sweater helped propel the Black Bears back to the NCAA tournament. Maine began the season 3-6-2, but O'Neill and fellow captain and Lynnfield native Brian Flynn weren't about to let their careers end that way.
"I'm very proud of the seniors in particular," Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. "They really banded together and refused to make excuses. They helped us find a way to will ourselves into the tournament."
Maine rattled off 20 wins in their last 29 games, including a memorable overtime triumph over New Hampshire at Fenway Park. The Black Bears reached the Hockey East final at TD Garden, where O'Neill earned the second All-Hockey East Tournament nod of his career.
"We accomplished a few of our goals," said O'Neill, the son of Salem State hockey coach Bill O'Neill. "I'm proud of the way we came together and connected. There's a real sense of pride among our small bunch here, and I really just feel proud of be able to play with them."
O'Neill was the third senior Black Bear to hit 100 points, joining the nation's leading scorer Spencer Abbott and Lynnfield's Flynn. He's also the fourth North Shore native to earn a place in Maine's century club, along with Flynn, Peabody native Ray Jacques and Marblehead's Gary Conn.
Still, the Bears' hopes were derailed Saturday by a bit of luck and a determined Minnesota-Duluth team. Maine goalie Dan Sullivan stopped a breakaway chance only to have the puck bounce off the back-glass, hit him in the back and go into the net. The second period goal only tied the game, 2-2, but Maine never found its game after that, and Duluth's relentless backcheck was too much to handle.
"You know, we didn't get ultimately where we wanted. We wanted that Hockey East championship and that NCAA championship, but we're quite proud of these boys," Whitehead said of his senior class, including O'Neill.