"We're going to Maine." -- Merrimack Warriors fan
Before the puck even dropped on Saturday's Merrimack-Massachusetts match, the Warriors and their fans knew the team's fate, as Maine doused any hope that Lawler Arena would host another quarterfinal playoff series when the Black Bears edged New Hampshire, 1-0, in Orono. That result cemented Merrimack's fifth-place finish in Hockey East, and assured the Warriors of a long road trip to Maine next weekend.
But there was still a game to play, and it was a dandy. The Minutemen (13-16-5; 9-14-4 Hockey East), fresh off a 5-1 win over the No. 12 Warriors (17-10-7; 13-9-5 HE) on Friday night, capitalized on timely scoring -- two goals in the last minutes of the first and second periods -- to take a 2-1 lead into the final stanza.
However, the Warriors dug deep in the final 20 minutes, lighting the lamp four times and hanging on for a 5-3 win in front of 2,489 at Lawler.
"There was a lot of goal scoring (in the third period), but I didn't think it was a very good game," said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. "I didn't think it had much flow. I just didn't like the way the game was played. It was like a pinball game.
"But I'm proud of my guys," he said. "They stuck it out. It's not necessarily the way we like to play, but we got it done."
On Senior Night, it was Merrimack senior Jesse Todd who opened the scoring, converting a nifty cross-crease pass from Jeff Velleca and roofing it past diving UMass goalie Steve Mastalerz at 3:21.
The Warriors had a glorious chance to stretch their lead when UMass forward Rocco Carzo was hit with a 5-minute major for boarding at 16:35. However, it was the Minutemen who had the best scoring bids.
First, Conor Sheary broke in alone on the Merrimack goal, but Joe Cannata denied him by flashing out the right pad at 18:30. With only six seconds left in the period, T.J. Tyner cut hard across Cannata's crease and buried the puck behind the Merrimack netminder to knot the game, 1-1.
UMass converted on another last-minute strike at the end of the middle period to take a 2-1 lead going into the second break. Steven Guzzo redirected a point shot from Colin Shea, and the puck trickled between Cannata's legs and into the net. The goal was upheld by the on-ice officials after a lengthy video review to determine whether Guzzo hit the puck with a high stick.
"The two good periods were in fact a good effort and the way we wanted to play in this building in order to try and take control of the game," said UMass coach Donald "Toot" Cahoon. "The only issue with those first two periods is we didn't yield very much for our efforts. We had lots of good opportunities, a couple of breakaways, and a couple of other situations where we needed to put the puck away. We didn't shoot the puck very well tonight."
Which proved a squandered opportunity for the Minutemen. The Warriors got back on even terms at 10:28 of the third with a power-play strike. With Shea serving two for cross checking, MC's Josh Myers, driving hard down the right side, took a feed from Connor Toomey and drove it past a lunging Mastalerz for his fourth of the season, and a 2-2 score.
The Warriors regained the lead, 3-2, at 14:57 of the third when sophomore Shawn Bates took a slick, behind-the-net, behind-the-back feed from Kyle Singleton, and snapped it over Mastalerz's right shoulder on the short side. At 16:22, Merrimack senior Ryan Flanigan got the eventual game-winner. Chugging down the left wing on a 2-on-1 break, Flanigan looked off the defender before firing a wrister that beat Mastalerz high glove side for a 4-2 lead.
The Minutemen kept battling, however, and at 17:33, during a mad scramble in front, UMass captain Danny Hobbs poked the puck past Cannata. Referee Scott Hansen immediately waved off the goal, claiming a high stick, but awarded the tally after video review.
Merrimack sophomore Rhett Bly completed the scoring when his floater from center ice danced past Hansen into the empty Massachusetts net with only 4 seconds left on the clock.
Merrimack's quarterfinal matchup with Maine provides an interesting rematch of last year's quarterfinals, but in a far different location. Last March, Merrimack earned their TD Garden invite by sweeping the Black Bears at home. Now, the Warriors will need to win at Maine's Alfond Arena to get to Boston on March 16, and to have any hope of an NCAA bid.
"It's a tough place to play," said Bates of Alfond. "We know that going there. And I think that's the fun part. We're the underdog, playing in front of all of Maine there."
Meanwhile, Massachusetts must take on the No. 1 BC Eagles, which is always a daunting task this time of year. But the Minutemen have already taken two from Boston College this year, though both times at Amherst. Taking two in Conte Forum, in March, is an entirely different challenge.
No. 1 Boston College 4, Vermont 0
Some teams never have to rebuild; they just reload. Boston College (25-10-1; 19-7-1 HE) is a classic case in point. A year after losing stalwart netminder John Muse, senior Brian Gibbons and junior snipers Cam Atkinson and Jimmy Hayes early to the pro ranks, the Eagles still were voted preseason favorites. Saturday, Jerry York's squad made good on that promise with a 4-0 win over Vermont (6-27-1; 3-23-1 HE), garnering a second straight Hockey East regular-season crown. One of York's talented freshmen, Destry Straight, got the Eagles started, 1-0, at 19:06 with his second of the season. Straight then assisted on Chris Kreider's 20th at 6:50 of the second to put the Eagles in command. BC's Pat Mullane and Bill Arnold added third-period strikes to allow the Eagles to win going away. It was the 11th win in a row for the Eagles, who look to be steamrolling into the Hockey East playoffs.
Northeastern 5, No. 4 Boston University 4 (OT)
Anyone who knows Northeastern coach Jim Madigan would be shocked if the Huskies (13-16-5; 9-14-4 Hockey East) mailed in this game, even after being eliminated from the Hockey East playoff race the night before. Sure enough, the Huntington Hounds came out with some snarl against the second-place Terriers (21-12-1; 17-9-1 HE) at Matthews Arena, grabbing a 1-0 lead on Braden Pimm's strike at 6:15. BU's Sean Escobedo knotted the game at 18:39, and then the fireworks started. The teams combined for five goals in the middle stanza, with Northeastern coming out ahead, 4-3. Undaunted, BU's Garrett Noonan tied the game 4-4 with his 14th at 3:14 of the third. In overtime, it was a former BU player, Northeastern's Vinny Saponari, who supplied the last twist of the knife, getting the game-winner for the Huskies at 2:35 of the extra session and knocking BU out of second place (the Terriers, though tied on points with Lowell, lose out on the tiebreaker to the River Hawks). As a result, BU will host New Hampshire next weekend.
No. 8 UMass Lowell 4, Providence 2
For the first time since 2002, the Lowell River Hawks (22-10-1; 17-9-1 HE) will host a Hockey East quarterfinal playoff series, and they'll take some momentum into the postseason after sweeping the weekend's two-game set against the Providence Friars (12-18-4; 10-14-3 HE) with a 4-2 win Saturday at the Tsongas Center. For Providence, the weekend sweep is a worrisome sign, as the seventh-place Friars now must return to Lowell for next weekend's quarterfinals, since the River Hawks were able to sneak past Boston University into the No. 2 slot after the Terriers lost to Northeastern. Lowell's Joseph Pendenza gave the River Hawks a 1-0 lead with his ninth of the season at 9:45 of the first. The teams traded goals in the second period, and then Lowell's Matt Ferreira struck at 1:43 of the third to give the River Hawks a commanding 3-1 edge. Pendenza's second of the night proved to be an insurance marker, as PC's Damien Cross cut the Lowell lead to 4-2 with 11 seconds remaining. The two squads will renew acquaintances Thursday, with a trip to Boston's TD Garden on the line.
Maine 1, New Hampshire 0
Maine goaltender Dan Sullivan picked the last day of the regular season to turn in one of his finest performances, as the sophomore turned away 32 Wildcats shots to backbone a 1-0 win over rival New Hampshire (14-17-3; 11-14-2 HE), guaranteeing the Black Bears (20-11-3; 15-10-2 HE) a fourth-place finish and home ice for next weekend's Hockey East quarterfinals. Maine's Brice O'Connor put the Black Bears out front with his second of the season at 10:13 of the first, and Sullivan made it stand the rest of the way. Next weekend, the Black Bears will host the Merrimack Warriors. Don't expect them to roll out the welcome mat.