Maine Still Looking For Net Positive
by Michael King/CHN Reporter
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. They have one of the deepest and most talented senior classes in Hockey East. But inconsistent goaltending has the potential to spoil what could otherwise be a strong year for the Maine Black Bears. And this is an important year for the program.
The team enjoyed limited success in 2010-11, finishing in fifth place and ending the season with two consecutive losses to Merrimack in the Hockey East quarterfinals. Freshman Dan Sullivan played well enough to earn Hockey East All-Rookie Team honors, but he was up and down and the Black Bears failed to make the NCAA Tournament again.
Entering this season, Maine coach Tim Whitehead hoped Sullivan would show significant development from his freshman year and leave little doubt around his position as the team's first-choice goaltender.
Until Friday night's game against Boston College, Sullivan was the most consistent option in net for the Black Bears. With wins over Northeastern and Providence and a hard-earned draw at North Dakota, Sullivan showed that he benefited from an offseason of intense practice and training.
"It's not an accident that he's having success this season," Whitehead said of the goalie. "He paid the price over the summer and worked tremendously hard."
Fellow sophomore Martin Ouellette — who played sparingly last season — has split time in net with Sullivan, earning a 1-2-0 record. The team's third goalie last year, Shawn Sirman (4-2-3, .894 save percentage), left the program in the offseason.
Against Boston College on Friday, Whitehead chose to start his most experienced goaltender, Sullivan, but the results were not quite what the coach had envisioned. The Eagles soundly defeated Maine, 5-1, scoring all five goals in the first two periods.
Maine played poorly all around the ice, but the most glaring sore spot was in net.
"BC was clearly the better team," Whitehead said. "They dominated us tonight in all three facets of the game."
That assessment was most accurate when BC's offensive onslaught forced the coach to make a goaltending change two minutes into the second period.
Sullivan allowed a power-play and shorthanded goal in the first, before surrendering a third 28 seconds into the second period. Maine attempted to seize momentum from the Eagles with a goal one minute later. But BC stifled any chance of a Black Bear comeback, responding after only 48 more seconds had elapsed.
At that point, Whitehead made his call to the bench.
"This was a tough night for (Dan)," Whitehead said. "A couple of goals there in the second period he looked pretty sloppy. But it was also the first tough game (he's had this season)."
Once Ouellette entered the game, BC was firmly in control and continued to give the Black Bears few chances. However, the Quebec native appeared poised and positioned himself well to combat frequent BC odd-man rushes.
"I thought Martin came off the bench and played," Whitehead said. "He made a few good stops for us."
Ouellette played just nine games last season, finishing with a 3-3-2 record and a .868 save percentage. This year he's encountered a lack of offensive support in two losses, despite playing well. He's also boosted key statistical barometers from last season thus far.
Certainly, a game against the No. 1-ranked team in college hockey is not the best circumstance to evaluate a team's goaltending situation. Boston College sports several lines of forwards that can create chances from little space.
But with a roster full of upperclassmen, the Black Bears appear primed to have a successful season. The group of seniors is the strong point of the team, with six consistently seeing ice time. Spencer Abbott and Brian Flynn rank among the conference scoring leaders and Will O'Neill leads a usually dependable defense.
Whitehead believes, however, that goaltending will not be his team's ultimate undoing. Instead, he's pleased with his sophomore tandem's quality of preparation this season and their development since their freshmen seasons.
"They are both way ahead of where they were at this point last year," Whitehead said of his sophomore goalie tandem. "It can be hard to say that after a 5-1 loss, but [Dan and Martin] are definitely playing and practicing better this year. Dan will bounce back and play better the next time out."
Whitehead declined to name who he'll start in net for Maine's next game against rival New Hampshire Saturday night. It's likely that Ouelette will earn the start given how he deftly stepped in for Sullivan Friday night.
Playing at the Whittemore Center in Durham, N.H., with a hostile crowd is never a simple task. However, leading his team to victory against the Wildcats could significantly contribute to emerging as the No.1 goalie.