PROVIDENCE, R.I. — They will be separated by 200 feet this weekend on the Schneider Arena ice, facing each other but never coming in contact.
But in one sense there’s no distance between Maine goaltender Martin Ouellette and Providence’s Jon Gillies. Both sport a 2.22 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. Each recorded three shutouts in the regular season.
A physical divide, a statistical dead-heat. Somewhere in that breach, destiny will be decided in the Hockey East quarterfinals.
“It doesn’t matter who’s at the other end of the ice, your job is first and foremost to give your team a chance to win,” said Gillies, a sophomore from South Portland. “Do what you can to be sure you match the other guy save for save. If it comes down to a tight game, make that one save that he might not.”
Nothing is more crucial in hockey’s tense postseason than goaltending. Maine and Providence enter their best-of-three series with two of the best backstops.
Ouellette and Gillies both are large but nimble. Ouellette stands 6-foot-2, Gillies 6-5.
Both started their youth careers as forwards before finding a home between the pipes for family reasons. Ouellette followed the lead of his older brother, Luc, who was a goaltender growing up in St.-Hippolyte, Quebec.
“I just decided to do the same thing as him. He was my role model when I was young,” Ouellette said.
Luc stopped growing at 5-8 and had to ditch his hockey career.
Ouellette is a senior who seized the starting job at Maine the past two seasons after playing sparingly as a freshman and sophomore.
“I use my speed and my size to get square to the puck,” Ouellette said. “I’m pretty quick and pretty athletic and a pretty big goalie.”
Gillies had a grandfather, father and uncle who were all collegiate goaltenders. He said he wasn’t pressured to play the position, but why wouldn’t he? The family photos were all around him growing up, a source of inspiration.
Gillies, 20, was good enough to start for Team USA in the world junior championships in Sweden this winter. He has started for the Friars from the moment he arrived, helping them win a quarterfinal series last year against New Hampshire before falling 2-1 to UMass-Lowell in the semifinals at TD Garden.
He will draw on those experiences this weekend for No. 9 Providence (19-9-6).
“I remember it’s big to have the home-ice advantage, but I also remember getting out there, it’s just like any other game. You can’t really prepare differently. It’s just kind of staying on an even keel,” Gillies said.
“But you also have to learn the ups and downs of the playoffs. Especially that loss to Lowell, learning how fast things can change over the course of a period.”
Two weeks ago, Providence visited Orono and handed Maine 4-2 and 3-2 losses. The No. 19 Black Bears (16-13-4) had fallen just once at home before that.
Even more humbling, Ouellette was pulled in the second period of the second game, which was senior night. Maine fell to the sixth seed in Hockey East and had to host Merrimack in a one-game playoff last Saturday.
Coach Red Gendron said he was going to spend the week deciding whether Ouellette or Dan Sullivan would be in net for that one. The day before the game, he told his senior goaltenders his decision. Ouellette, who has started all but one game this season, would get the nod for the playoff game.
“I just worked hard in practice. I couldn’t really worry about that. I had to worry about my game and be ready,” Ouellette said.
Ouellette focused on seeing the puck well and getting his feet set before shots were fired at him. Those were two aspects of his game that he felt had gotten away from him during the last two weekends of the season, in which Maine went 0-3-1.
He said he never lost faith in himself.
“I’ve been playing pretty well consistently all year, so I don’t think two weekends can affect your confidence that much,” Ouellette said.
His response was to stop all 29 shots in a 2-0 victory over Merrimack, his fourth shutout this winter.
“I was feeling good and obviously it showed in the game,” Ouellette said. “We played great as a team, so it was an awesome game for us.
“Now we’re ready for the next step. We’re going to have to play better than we did two weeks ago, and we know we can. It wasn’t our best weekend as a team. So we’re excited to go back there and beat them at their place.”
Gillies will have a lot to say about that.
“My job’s more … to be the pillar of strength if possible. Make sure my guys have confidence in me,” Gillies said. “To know that they have the ability to play fast, to take chances, because I’m going to be there to bail them out if something goes awry.”
Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or:firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: MarkEmmertPPH