NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — University of Maine freshman Shawn Sirman wasn’t told that he was going to replace struggling Scott Darling in goal against Merrimack College Saturday night until the team’s breakfast that morning.
“I was really surprised. I thought they’d go back with Scotty. But they went with me and it worked out,” said Sirman, who finished with 24 saves, including three breakaways, to lead Maine to a 5-1 men’s hockey victory.
Maine snapped a four-game road winless streak (0-3-1) and improved to 16-13-3 overall, 13-10-2 in Hockey East. Merrimack fell to 14-17-1 and 11-13-1.
Maine needs just a tie or a UMass Lowell tie or loss next weekend to sew up a top four finish in Hockey East and a home ice quarterfinal-series berth for the first time in four years. Maine hosts UMass for a pair while UML entertains Vermont for two.
It was Sirman’s first collegiate win after five losses. He hadn’t started a regular season game since Jan. 16 although he shut out the United States Under-18 team 4-0 in an exhibition game on Jan. 23.
Sophomore right wing Gustav Nyquist and his linemates Brian Flynn and Tanner House rebounded from a poor performance in a 6-3 loss to Merrimack on Friday night with a dominant display. Nyquist, the nation’s leading scorer (17 goals, 37 assists), had two goals and two assists; Flynn had a pair of goals and House dished out two assists.
Robby Dee had the other Maine goal.
John Heffernan scored for Merrimack, which entered the game with a 12-2 home record.
Sirman’s first save came with his left pad on a breakaway backhander by Warrior leading goal scorer Chris Barton and the goalie settled in nicely after that. He finished with 11 Grade-A (high-percentage) saves among his 24 including another breakaway stop off Barton and one off Brandon Brodhag.
“I felt a lot more confident after making the first save off the breakaway,” said Sirman. “From there on in, I was really focused and wasn’t as nervous. Our defense played unbelievable in front of me.”
Maine had allowed at least four goals in its previous five games and Darling had a 4.93 goals-against average and an .831 save percentage in them.
“Shawn stepped up and made some key saves, including the breakaways, and that lifted the team’s confidence,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “The team played a lot stronger in front of him tonight which gave him a better opportunity to succeed. We won a lot of one-on-one battles.”
“Shawn was unbelievable,” said Nyquist who was also pleased with his line’s play.
“Our whole line stepped up today. We were brutal [Friday] night and we felt like we needed to bounce back and help the team out,” said Nyquist.
They had just a power-play goal and three assists Friday.
“We kept it simple and got to the net more,” said Flynn, who opened the scoring by swatting home the rebound of a Ryan Hegarty shot while the Bears were shorthanded.
“I just took a whack at it and, luckily, it trickled in,” said Flynn.
Nyquist made it 2-0 on the power play 1:13 later when he circled off the boards, took a Will O’Neill pass and beat goalie Joe Cannata with a wrister to the glove (short) side.
“Joey Diamond had a perfect screen in front,” said Nyquist.
Heffernan scored by beating Sirman after his initial shot was blocked.
Nyquist’s second goal was pivotal as it came with 56 seconds left in the second period as a Mark Nemec shot deflected over to him in the right circle and he fired a backhander inside the far post.
“I just threw it at the net,” said Nyquist.
“That was huge. Going into the third period with a two-goal lead was nice,” said Maine junior defenseman and assistant captain Jeff Dimmen.
Dee made it 4-1 4:28 into the third period when David de Kastrozza’s relentless pursuit forced a turnover in the left circle and Dee wheeled and beat Cannata with a rising shot to the far corner.
“That was the key goal of the game,” said Nyquist who teamed up with Flynn to cap the scoring off a two-on-oh by sliding the puck across to his linemate for a simple tap-in.
Maine outshot Merrimack 36-25 and killed off all eight Warrior power plays.
“[Maine] wanted it more than we did,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy.
“We got outworked,” said Merrimack senior defenseman and co-captain Pat Bowen.