Just a few weekends ago, we were writing the eulogy for Maine’s season.
The Black Bears had brought an ugly losing streak into a Friday night game against a struggling Vermont team. The only glimmer of hope in that game was the return of Dan Sullivan. In his absence, Maine’s goaltending went under the microscope. Nothing was working and in the previous six games pucks were going in the Maine net like basketballs.
Sullivan returned to action on February 11 against Vermont but gave up three goals in nine shots before being pulled in the first period. Martin Ouellette replaced him and allowed four more goals to an offense that was ranked near the bottom nationally.
Maine was in a full goaltending crisis.
So pardon me and many others who may have been a little surprised this past Saturday night – less than three weeks after the Vermont fiasco – to find out that Dan Sullivan was the new shutout king in Orono. After two shutouts last weekend against a Massachusetts-Lowell squad (given the River Hawks struggles, this didn’t come as too much of a surprise), Sullivan blanked one of the nation’s hottest teams, Merrimack, on Friday and then extended that shutout into the second period on Saturday night.
Sullivan’s shutout streak of 202 minutes, 48 seconds set the Maine record for longest ever, passing the mark of former standout Jimmy Howard by more than nine minutes.
So what’s this about a goaltending crisis? Oh, and how about a season of life support?
Maine, with back-to-back weekend sweeps and a five-game winning streak overall, suddenly is a lock for at least a fifth-place finish, could possibly get home ice and now is relevant again in the NCAA tournament picture. The Black Bears rose to a tie for 15th with Boston University and Dartmouth in the PairWise Rankings. If they can swing just a single comparison in the next few weeks – a chance they’ll likely get in the Hockey East quarterfinals – you may be able to punch a ticket to the dance for this up-and-down Maine club.
At the same time, Maine’s sweep ended an impressive run for Merrimack, which had climbed to fourth in both the USCHO.com poll and the PairWise. The Warriors dropped into a tie for sixth in the PairWise but, more importantly, lost any chance at their first regular-season title. Home ice, in fact, is up in the air as Merrimack will need to take at least two points from Providence this weekend (something that shouldn’t be difficult given that the Friars could barely get just one point of four from lowly Lowell this weekend).
The only other team to sweep a weekend series besides Maine was Boston College, which took two one-goal victories against Massachusetts. That, combined with New Hampshire taking three-of-four points against Northeastern brings us to the final weekend of the season with the top teams facing off for the league title.
BC and UNH are the only teams with a shot at the title. The Wildcats have a one-point lead and will square off in a two-game set with the Eagles beginning Friday at Chestnut Hill.
That, though, will hardly be the only series anyone watches next weekend. The only team to clinch their final position is Northeastern, which will finish sixth no matter what happens. Vermont, UMass and Providence, as most expected, will fight it out for the final two playoff spots. The Friars, who haven’t won a league game since November 5, will have to pull off a miracle, though, and take at least three points against Merrimack. For the record, the Nov. 5 win for Providence came against none other than Merrimack.
For a complete list of scenarios that will play themselves out in the final weekend, click here.