ORONO, Maine — Goaltending and playoff hockey go hand-in-hand.
It’s unusual for a hockey team to win a championship with average or subpar goaltending.
The University of Maine men’s hockey team is in a delicate predicament entering Saturday night’s Hockey East first-round single-elimination game against 11th seed Merrimack College at Alfond Arena.
Senior goalie Martin Ouellette was the most influential component in the team’s surprising success that left them with an opportunity to finish as high as second entering the final four games of the regular season after being picked to finish eighth in the preseason coaches poll.
But in those four games, Ouellette went 0-3-1 with a disturbing 4.24 goals-against average and .867 save percentage, and Maine ended up sixth in Hockey East. Ouellette has a 3.12 GAA and a .900 save percentage over his last 11 starts.
The senior goalie was pulled in the second period of Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Providence after allowing three goals on 20 shots. He was replaced by senior Dan Sullivan, who made 13 saves and didn’t allow a goal.
But Sullivan hasn’t started a game since his 18-save performance in a 5-1 win over American International College on Dec. 14.
Maine coach Red Gendron hasn’t announced his starter against Merrimack.
“I’ll make a decision based on practice this week,” said Gendron on Monday.
Both goalies said they will be ready if called upon.
Ouellette said he hasn’t lost his confidence.
“The last four games weren’t horrible, but I wasn’t as sharp as I can be. The previous two weekends, against Merrimack and Notre Dame, I was sharper, and I have to get back to that. I know I can.
“I’ve got to get back to basics and to what has worked for me, and I’ve got to start doing that in practice,” said Ouellette.
In the games against Notre Dame and Merrimack, Ouellette had a sparkling 1.75 GAA and a .945 save percentage.
Sullivan said he feels comfortable in goal.
“I think both of us are confident and that the team has confidence in both of us. It’s up to [Gendron] at this point,” he said. “I’m going to do my best to stop the puck in practice every day and see what happens.”
Sullivan called Ouellette “one of the top goalies in college hockey if not the best,” and Ouellette was equally complimentary of his partner, calling Sullivan “an elite goalie.”
The Maine players aren’t concerned about their goaltending.
“I’m not worried about Marty at all,” said sophomore center Devin Shore. “He has been our backbone all year. He has been incredible. He works very hard in practice. And Dan stepped in and played well.”
Sophomore center/right wing Steven Swavely said whoever starts, the team will be ready.
“Marty has stood on his head and won us so many games. We have confidence in both of them,” he said.
Senior defenseman and captain Brice O’Connor said, “I know Marty would like to have some of those goals back. But he has bailed us out of some big games. We need to play better in front of him. And if he lets one in, we need to bail him out. The fact of the matter is we’re all making mistakes, and we all could be doing a little bit more [to help the goalies].”