WORCESTER, Mass. — Dan Sullivan holds himself to high standards in terms of his play as a goaltender.
That’s why he was disappointed Saturday night after a fluke bounce and a bad decision by him helped seal the fate of the University of Maine men’s hockey team in their 5-2 NCAA Northeast Regional loss to Minnesota-Duluth at the DCU Center.
The Black Bears’ sophomore made 21 saves, including turning away two breakaway bids, but he and his teammates came up a bit short.
“All the experiences I’ve had with this team have been unbelievable,” Sullivan said after the game. “It’s a terrible feeling right now to end it like this, especially for the senior class.”
Sullivan played well early, making a clutch glove save on Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Brady Lamb on a 2-on-0 breakaway in the first period with the game scoreless. Lamb and J.T. Brown got behind the UMaine defense and Lamb elected to shoot.
“He’s the reason why we go to the playoffs. He’s the reason why we get home ice,” said senior defenseman Will O’Neill. “It’s about goaltending. He really stepped up.”
The tone of Saturday night’s game changed dramatically during a critical 60-second span late in the second period.
With the Black Bears leading 2-1, UMD’s Caleb Herbert stole the puck from defenseman Brice O’Connor inside the blue line near the right point and bore in alone on Sullivan.
Herbert’s shot was deflected away by Sullivan, but the Bulldogs caught a lucky break.
“It went off my glove hand and I looked over my left shoulder for it, thinking it was in the corner,” Sullivan explained of the shot that ricocheted high off the glass, “and it ended up actually behind me on my right and banked off my right leg and in.”
The Bulldogs seized the momentum one minute later. This time, Sullivan cleared the puck toward the left-side wall, where the opportunistic Lamb was waiting.
“I take the fault on that one,” Sullivan said. “I rimmed it to their guy, unfortunately.”
Lamb moved in and took a snap shot that Sullivan stopped with his left pad, but Jake Hendrickson pounced on the rebound and slipped it around the scrambling UMaine goalie.
“I didn’t see anybody at the time and I wanted to get it out of harm’s way,” explained Sullivan, who pointed to puckhandling as one of the skills he must improve during the offseason.
Those two goals re-energized the defending national champion Bulldogs, who seemed to have their confidence restored.
Even though the Bears remained confident heading into the third period, Sullivan said they could sense the momentum swing.
“They started believing and we kind of got the wind knocked out of our sails a bit, I think,” he said. “I really thought we had control of the game and then they came back and really took it to us there in the second period and they kept rolling with it.”
UMaine could not muster many offensive threats the rest of the way and UMD beat Sullivan once more to take control 9:15 into the third period.
Travis Oleksuk centered the puck from low in the right circle. It made it all the way across the slot to Brown, who was able to sneak a weak backhand shot under Sullivan’s right ankle near the post to his right.
That made it 4-2.
Sullivan has continued to make great strides since playing a part-time role as a freshman. This season, he developed more consistency.
“He really emerged as a very steady, calming influence back there,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “So rarely did he give up a soft goal this year.”
The soft-spoken Sullivan started to come out of his shell and demonstrate his intellect (he owns a 4.0 grade point average), his work ethic and his determination.
“He’s a great student of the game,” Whitehead said. “He soaks it in. He’s so coachable.”
Part of Sullivan’s growth during this season stemmed from his ability to put less pressure on himself.
Saturday’s setback in his first NCAA postseason game should serve as another important lesson in Sullivan’s development. O’Neill is convinced his teammate has a bright future in net for UMaine.
“He stepped up for us with broad shoulders and he did his thing and we’re really proud of him,” O’Neill said.
“He’s a really confident guy and that’s the reason why he can bounce back in a game when we’re down,” he added.
Sullivan, who said he’ll also be working on his skating and trying to limit long rebounds, is determined to get better.
“Nobody’s perfect, obviously, but there’s a lot of improvement yet to come,” Sullivan said.