ORONO, Maine — If the University of Maine was going to get past Merrimack College in its Hockey East single-elimination first-round game on Saturday night, the Black Bears were going to need senior goalie Martin Ouellette to snap out of his recent slump.
He certainly did.
Ouellette finished with 29 saves, including 12 of the Grade-A (high-percentage) variety, and senior left wing Mark Anthoine scored with a backhander just 2:01 into the game as Maine triumphed 2-0 at Alfond Arena.
Sophomore center Devin Shore added an empty-net goal with 19 seconds left when he outraced a Warrior defenseman to the puck to prevent an icing call and tapped the loose puck into the vacant net. Ben Hutton picked up an assist.
Shore’s 14th goal of the year came just 16 seconds after his errant pass across the slot landed on the stick of Merrimack freshman center Hampus Gustafsson. But Ouellette came out to cut down the angle and smother Gustafsson’s wrister.
“When there’s only a few minutes left and you’re up by a goal in the playoffs, you have to be on your toes and ready for anything that happens,” said Ouellette. “I saw that [Shore] was looking to make a pass to [Hutton] and I saw [Gustafsson] coming through the middle. I was able to come out and I got his shot right against my chest. Then I was able to cover it.
“I don’t know how many times Devin thanked me after the game,” grinned Ouellette whose shutout was his fourth of the season and seventh of his career.
“Marty played great,” said Maine coach Red Gendron who didn’t decide on a starting goalie until Friday morning in the wake of Ouellette’s four-game slump (0-3-1, 4.24 goals-against average, .867 save percentage).
Sixth seed Maine is now 16-13-4 and will travel to No. 3 Providence College (19-9-6) for a best-of-three quarterfinal series beginning Friday night.
No. 11 Merrimack finished at 8-22-3.
“This kid [Ouellette] has helped us win a lot of games. He got us to this point,” explained Gendron. “I met with him Thursday and he convinced me he had his confidence back. He had two great practices on Thursday and Friday.”
Ouellette said he worked hard in practice week and focused on “seeing the puck better, finding it through screens and setting my feet. And the guys played great in front of me. They boxed out well. I was able to see the shots.”
Merrimack senior center Rhett Bly said Ouellette and Warriors junior goalie Rasmus Tirronen played really well.
When [Ouellette] was called on, he answered the bell. He made some big stops,” Bly said.
Tirronen was the busier of the two goalies as he turned in an impressive 33-save performance which included 17 Grade-A stops.
“He was very, very good,” said Gendron.
“Both goalies made saves on pucks that should have gone in the net,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy.
Anthoine’s ninth goal of the season resulted from a strong forecheck. Linemates Andrew Cerretani and Steven Swavely notched assists.
“The puck bounced to [Cerretani] up high [in the slot] and he had his head up. Instead of throwing it back down behind the net, he had enough poise to throw it at the net. It hit Swavely and bobbled around. I kicked it [to my stick] and just threw it on net. It was a muffed shot,” said Anthoine, whose backhander floated over Tirronen’s blocker.
Maine had two straight power plays in the first period but couldn’t expand the lead as Tirronen made a number of stops including a terrific in-tight one off Shore’s backhander.
Maine took three straight penalties later in the period and Ouellette was immense as he was forced to make several quality saves.
Maine also caught a break when an unattended Jordan Heywood had the puck roll off his stick while facing an exposed net.
The Black Bears used their speed to control the second period but Tirronen came up with nine Grade-A saves to keep his team within one. Ouellette was forced to make just two Grade-A stops in the period.
Maine also had the better of the play in the third period and nearly built on its lead only to have Brady Campbell’s wrister from the right circle rattle off the short-side post.
Ouellette came up with a gem midway through the period as he gloved Clayton Jardine’s rising wrister from the left circle.
“Maine did a real good job playing with the lead in the third period. Our guys passed up way too many shots in the game. They were looking for the perfect play,” Dennehy said.
“We played pretty well,” said Maine senior defenseman Brice O’Connor. “The big thing is we competed for 60 minutes. Marty really tracked the puck. He found it through screens and he didn’t leave rebounds. He was great.”