Goaltender Joe Cannata has compiled an impressive resume in his four seasons at Merrimack College.
He owns the school record for wins and is a two-time Walter Brown Award finalist which is given to the best American-born college player in New England. He has appeared in 119 career games and has a 58-44-16 record, a 2.48 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage.
University of Maine sophomore goalie Dan Sullivan has played in just 51 career games but his stellar play this year has led the Black Bears to their first 20-win season since the 2006-2007 season.
Cannata and Sullivan will square off this weekend in their best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series at Alfond Arena. Maine is the fourth seed and Merrimack finished fifth.
The teams will play Friday, Saturday and, if necessary, on Sunday. The games will start at 7 p.m.
“It’s going to be a tough series,” predicted the 22-year-old Cannata who is a year younger than Sullivan and out-dueled him in the quarters a year ago. “They’re going to want revenge and they’ve been playing well of late.”
Both teams have NCAA Tournament aspirations and need to win. Maine is tied for ninth in the Pairwise Rankings that emulate the NCAA Tournament selection process while Merrimack is tied for 14th.
Merrimack ended Maine’s NCAA Tournament hopes last season by sweeping the Black Bears at Lawler Arena in North Andover, Mass., 5-4, 6-2.
The Bears have a lot of respect for Cannata but they also like how Sullivan has played this season.
“He’s 10-fold better than he was last year,” said senior defenseman Ryan Hegarty.
“He has been playing great. He has solidified his role as one of the top goalies in this league and that has given us a huge boost,” said Maine senior defenseman and co-captain Will O’Neill. “Any time you have a guy back there who can bail you out, it’s a big deal. It gives you a lift.”
O’Neill said when players have confidence in their goalie, they are able to relax and make more plays.
Maine junior left wing Adam Shemansky said it feels like “we’ve been playing playoff hockey for a while now” after going 3-6-1 to start the season.
“We’ve had to win games and (Sullivan) has stood up to the test. If he had a sub-par game, he bounced right back which shows how he has matured as a goalie,” said Shemansky.
Maine has gone 17-5-2 after the 3-6-1 start.
“He’s a young goalie who has made a name for himself and his teammates have confidence in him,” observed Cannata, who is 3-0-1 in his last four starts against Sullivan.
Sullivan is equally impressed with Cannata.
“There’s no doubt that he has a bright future ahead of him [in pro hockey],” said Sullivan.
The Maine goalie said playing a top-notch goalie adds energy to the match-up.
“When you know the opposing goalie is very, very good, it makes it that much more fun,” said Sullivan. “It’s another challenge.”
Sullivan said he has come a long way since last year’s playoff debut.
“I feel a lot more confident in myself and the team and the team has a lot more confidence in me,” said Sullivan. “It’s going to be a tough match-up but we need to be confident and I think we are.
“I’m just going to focus on one shot at a time and see where it takes us,” said Sullivan.
Cannata said he tries to be “consistent” every night to give his team a chance to win.
And he has certainly done that.
“[Cannata] has solidified himself as one of the top goalies in the league the last three or four years and they play a defensive style,” said O’Neill. “We have to get in front of him as much as possible and get as many pucks on him as we can.”