If the University of Maine Black Bears are going to earn their first NCAA tournament appearance since the 2006-2007 season, it appears as though it will be up to freshman goaltenders Dan Sullivan and Martin Ouellette to produce quality performances down the stretch, beginning with Saturday's 4 p.m. game at Merrimack College.
In the last three seasons, second-half goaltending has been problematic.
Maine allowed four or more goals 26 times in 59 games after the Florida College Classic during those three seasons. They had given up four or more just 13 times in 53 games up through the Florida College Classic.
Maine senior center and captain Tanner House admitted their previous goalies "struggled a little bit" in the second half, but he is confident both are capable of supplying the type of goaltending they'll need to put together a second-half run.
"They've been playing like veterans," said House.
"When they came in, we didn't know what to expect. But they have really established themselves," added House. "We have confidence in both of them."
He said they have different styles in that Ouellette makes more "acrobatic-style saves" while Sullivan is more technical.
"They've been very calm in key situations. They've been playing great for us," sophomore right wing Joey Diamond said.
They compete with each other during practice for the next game's start.
"We use it to help each other get better," said Ouellette. "We push each other in practice. We always try to be the best in every practice and that is really good for us."
"Not knowing who is going to play elevates our game," he said. "You want to impress the team and the coaches. You want everyone to have confidence in you."
Sophomore Shawn Sirman is also in the picture and junior Josh Seeley backs the trio up.
Sullivan said there is a "great learning environment" for the goalies.
"Marty and I are paired together in goalie drills so I get the chance to watch what he does in the drills. You get a different point of view. You see where the shooters are shooting and what holes are open. You see what you need to do," said Sullivan.
Sullivan has seen the majority of the playing time because Ouellette suffered an ankle injury during the preseason that kept him out of the lineup for several weeks.
Sullivan has played in 11 games and has a 5-4-1 record, a 2.59 goals-against average and an .891 save percentage. Ouellette has played in four games and is 2-1-1 with a 2.17 GAA and a .909 save percentage.
Both feel they have improved significantly since the beginning of the season.
"I really think I've gotten better and I want to keep (getting) better," said Ouellette, who stopped 43 of 46 shots in the last two games, a 3-2 win over Cornell and a 5-1 exhibition victory over the United States Under-18 team.
"I'm real happy about that," said Ouellette.
"I'm exponentially better than I was in September," said Sullivan. "Just seeing these kinds of shots in practice every day elevates my game."
Both credited goalie coach Dave Alexander for his role in their development.
Whoever starts on Saturday knows they will be have a large task at hand against a talented Merrimack team that already owns two wins over defending national champion Boston College.
"We know they have a great team. They've already knocked off big teams like Boston College. It's going to be a great challenge for us," said Sullivan.
"It's a real important game. It's going to be a hard battle. They're good at home (4-1-1), and their rink is tough to play in," said Ouellette.
Whoever plays will be opposed by junior Joe Cannata (9-4-4, 2.06, .924). The former U.S. Under-18 team goalie is having an exceptional season.
"He has taken his game up a notch. He has been steady and stingy," said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. "He has been our best player on most nights."
Dennehy knows whoever Maine plays in goal will be solid.
"They're both capable goalies," he said.