For the Maryland Black Bears this year, much like others in the NAHL, there were plenty of hurdles to actually get the season rolling and completed. They started their season at their sister rink north of Baltimore, they had pauses and postponements for one reason or another, and then dealing with a big slide during the season. Yet, at the end of the day, the 2020-21 Maryland Black Bears team was their best yet, securing a winning record, a playoff spot, and their first playoff series victory. Despite falling short in the East Divison Final, the foundation of success has been laid for this organization.
The start was a little rocky, as the Black Bears couldn’t play at their home rink in Piney Orchard due to local regulation when it came to what were deemed high-risk contact sports in Anne Arundel County. Luckily, the Black Bears had a home in their sister rink in Abingdon, Maryland that they could play in, so the operation shifted there, but without the use of the locker rooms; meaning players had to dress outside before coming into the rink and had to stay on the bench between periods. Notwithstanding, they had a place to play– which is more than some teams could say.
Despite dropping their first game of the season in overtime, the Black Bears went 12-6-5 by Groundhog Day, sweeping New Jersey, Johnstown, and Northeast in that run. It was also the first time Maryland saw the top of divisional standings that deep into the season. The IceWorld era ended after the February 8th and 9th games, but it started as big slide with Maryland dropping their next 12 games with five of those games being one-goal affairs. Even a return to The Den at Piney Orchard couldn’t cure the losing woes. After going through that and the playoff picture being more cluttered, the team knew they had to dig deep and not let the great start to the season end with a floundering second half of the season.
Splitting two series with Danbury and Northeast after, the Black Bears got back to their early season success. They reeled off a franchise record seven-game winning streak, which included their first two shutouts of the season and their first two wins at the War Memorial in Johnstown. Also around that time, it was announced that the East Division would have their playoffs settled by points percentage due some teams playing more than the 54 games that was the minimum requirement for the season. With that, the Black Bears were in the driver’s seat for the last playoff spot, but still had to scoreboard watch and then garner points against Northeast and Danbury, whom they were fending off.
Maryland went 3-0-1 against Northeast down the stretch and split against Danbury, which was enough for them to clinch the final spot in the East Division ahead of the least weekend, thanks to some help from elsewhere. In that, the Black Bears also secured their first over-.500 season in franchise history being four games over the .500 mark, as well as holding their lowest goal-against total for the franchise.
For their playoff draw, they had to go against the biggest thorn in their sides, the Johnstown Tomahawks. While Maryland had played Johnstown close this season (10 of the 14 games were decided by one goal), the overall success wasn’t the best with a 7-21-7 record against Johnstown all-time in the regular season. Undaunted after a 5-3 Game One loss, the Black Bears came back for three goals int he first period of Game Two that carried them to a 6-4 victory for their first playoff win in franchise history. Coming back to The Den, Maryland took Game Three, overcoming a two-goal deficit to win 3-2; but they weren’t so lucky in Game Four, as another two-goal deficit couldn’t be overcome, sending the series to a decisive Game Five. Midway through the third period of Game Five, Maryland was down by one goal, but two goals in 37 seconds coupled with the stalwart defensive performance lifted the team into the second round in a big upset in the East Division.
Riding high, the Black Bears looked to use their emotional win to carry them into representing the East Division at the Robertson Cup Finals, but had to face off against a tough Maine Nordiques team; whom they had difficulty against in limited match-ups this season. While they did show offensive bursts, Maine’s suffocating defense limited the Black Bears to only three goals in the series, while putting up 12 of their own; winning the East Division in a sweep with all games ending 4-1.
It did not end the way the team wanted to, with hopes of the Robertson Cup being theirs. At the end of the day, given all the trials and tribulations– the Black Bears did more than some people may have expected to. On top of that, they brought in a good mix of experience and bringing in talented youngsters and affiliated players to look at what the future could hold for this team in the future.
Some might argue that using the term “historic” so much when talking about the accomplishments of the season could be overkill for a fourth place team, but in these instances, it’s definitely not. They made plenty of history for their franchise, they put benchmarks out there for future teams to strive for, and they set the culture for this organization moving onward.
All Photos by Jon Pitonzo/FOHS Media Faction