Maine Freshman Gets Tough Medicine Against BC
by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. It’s hardly an ideal way for a freshman’s collegiate career to begin, but Maine goaltender Dan Sullivan didn’t mind the six-goal cushion.
Against, Massachusetts-Lowell on Oct. 8, Sullivan relieved sophomore Shawn Sirman with his Black Bears ahead 7-1. When the first 9 minutes, 26 seconds of his career ended, the Black Bears had earned an 8-2 win over the River Hawks and two points in Hockey East, while sending a resounding message to rest of the conference that the old club up North was ready to retake their place as the class of Hockey East.
A few weeks later, boasting a 6-1-3 record and a six-game unbeaten streak, the Black Bears made their second trip to Boston of the season – this time rolling into Conte Forum for a pair with defending champions of everything Boston College.
As it’s been since Ben Bishop took his talents to the National Hockey League, the only spot on the Maine depth chart not set prior to the season was, perhaps, the most important. With Scott Darling no longer enrolled at the university and last year’s postseason hero Dave Wilson graduated, the job as the No. 1 goaltender – perhaps the second most difficult position in the entire state behind Whitehead’s – was to be had for a fourth consecutive season.
Sullivan drew the task of thwarting the Eagles on Friday night after posting a 4-1-1 record in the first six decisions of his career, but Sirman and fellow freshman Martin Ouellette have seen time this season with Whitehead searching for the answer. As it often goes for goaltenders skating onto Kelley Rink for the first time, Sullivan fell, 4-0, to the Eagles; learning quickly that college hockey’s best can beat you with skill, power and just about any other way it wants to.
Not helping Sullivan was a misplay on a puck behind his own goal in the first period.
Already down 1-0, he circled his own goal to corral a loose puck with his team on a power play. As senior defenseman Jeff Dimmen drifted toward Sullivan, the goaltender turned, trying to snap the puck around the dasher. Just as he released the puck, BC center Brian Gibbons arrived, picking off the pass intended for no one and tucking it into the empty net. While this was the lone sign of Sullivan’s inexperience, aside from his still snow-white mask, the freshman pointed to a few other things he learned in his first visit to the Heights.
“I tried to fake [Gibbons], but he read it like a book. He was very aware of what was going on there, and he just picked it up and put it in the net,” Sullivan said after the game. “There isn’t too much distance between the boards and the net, so it’s a little bit different from our rink. It’s something I’ll have to get used to. I have to work on communication as well.
“You have to stay at an even keel, and, whatever happens, you have to bounce back,” he continued. “Obviously you’re going to have your good games and your bad games. You just want to elevate your game back to where it was. You can’t let [losing] affect you too much. You just have to keep doing the same things and the little things right. You have to try to get better every day and have a short memory. Let this one go. It’s going sting a little bit tonight, but [Sunday] is a new day. I’ll just forget about it and look forward to the next game and focus on really improving.”
On the Maine bench, Sirman and Ouellette observed the effort, wondering if and when their next shot would come. Sirman’s came with 12:25 remaining in regulation after Whitehead removed Sullivan, saving the rookie’s confidence – and getting Sirman some minutes – with the two points already lost.
“Not [Sullivan’s] best,” Whitehead said of the loss. “He’s been so consistent and so sharp for us. He had the turnover on the second goal, and the third one he kind of tried to squeeze; but a goalie makes a mistake and everyone notices. A lot of guys made mistakes tonight and in previous games that he’s covered for all season. So I felt for him tonight. He wasn’t at his best, but he’ll bounce back. He prepares very well each week, and he’s having a very good season.”
“It’s a great experience. He’s on the road. We had him in there against Michigan State on the road. We had at Vermont, against [Boston University] on the road, so he’s been in a lot of great situations, which is only going to make him better. He’s a tough kid. He’ll bounce back.”
As for Whitehead’s next major decision – who will get the start Sunday afternoon against BC – he insists he hasn’t made that decision yet.
“Goaltending was a weakness last year. Coming into the season, we didn’t know what we had. Quite frankly, it’s been a strength. This is unusual where we’ve had a couple goals that we’d like to have back. We have three great choices right now. I’ve been very pleased with all three goalies. Dan’s been in the lead, and he’s deserved it. We’ll take a look at the tape, sleep on it and we’ll [decide who’s going to play on Sunday] tomorrow.”
Following Maine’s unexpected – at least south of Orono – run to the Hockey East Championship game last season, it was clear where the club’s largest hole lay. Wilson filled it admirably in leading the fourth-seeded Black Bears to the title game, but Whitehead knows the success of his program starts from the cage out. The gifted troop of underclassmen he picks from every night shows promise for the program whose fans demand excellence and championships.
Still, there’s a decision to make every night. A decision coaches who win championships just don’t have to make.