NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — The Connecticut Huskies proved Saturday night that the old expression, “close, but no cigar,” still doesn’t make losing any easier to stomach.
One night after falling 6-2 to the Merrimack Warriors, the Huskies, in only their third season of Division I hockey, put the scare of a lifetime into the Warriors in the rematch, falling 4-2 before a small-but-vocal crowd of 1,024 at the Volpe Complex.
“You are what you are and we’re 0-3,” said UConn coach Bruce Marshall, “but it takes time for kids to get into it. We’re slowly developing.”
UConn, a member of the MAAC, opened its season with three non-league games against Hockey East clubs UMass-Lowell and Merrimack. Besides showing steady improvement in each of those three games, the Huskies showed resiliency, battling back twice from two-goal deficits to close to within a goal. This is something Marshall hopes to carry into MAAC league play.
“It’s a big thing in sports — to learn something every day,” Marshall said. “It’s our job as coaches to carry Saturday night’s [performance] into Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and into next weekend’s games.”
For Merrimack, head coach Chris Serino was happy with the outcome of the game, and the weekend, but was not happy with his club’s performance throughout. After Friday night criticizing his club’s execution, Serino felt a lot more was missing on Saturday.
“I’m happy that we got two wins, but we didn’t compete tonight,” said Serino. “We had a ton of scoring chances but we didn’t deserve them.
“UConn outplayed us and battles harder than us. They had better chances, but we had guys that could score the goals. That was the difference.”
The Warriors outshot UConn, 40-24, on the game, but that was hardly indicative of the actual flow. The Huskies offense displayed speed that had been missing throughout their first two contests and forced the Merrimack defense to play a little more back on their heels.
Still, Serino was able to see some positive light.
“What it boils down to is players thinking they could do more than they could do. We’re a great team, but not great individuals. The positive point, though, is that a couple of years ago, we might have lost this game.”
The game was a battle of two rookie goaltenders. Merrimack’s Joe Exter (22 saves) and UConn’s Artie Imbriano (36 saves) both made their first collegiate starts. It was Exter’s first career game, as he had to sit out all last season and the first two games this year because he had played major junior hockey before arriving at Merrimack.
“I was nervous all day, but settled down a bit once the game began,” said Exter, who was called upon to make some big saves early. “Even though coach wasn’t happy with how we competed, I thought that the guys played real hard in the final 10 minutes, and that helped me.”
Serino was pleased with the tough saves that Exter executed, but said that wasn’t what impressed him most.
“When you don’t play in a game situation for two years, it’s not making the stops that is most difficult,” said Serino. “The toughest thing was handling the puck and as a coaching staff we were surprised at how well [Exter] handled the puck.”
Marshall, too, was pleased with the performance of his netminder.
“I think last night [Imbriano] got tested,” Marshall said of the relief effort his rookie netminder made in his collegiate debut on Friday. “Tonight, I thought he played real well, and now he has to build on it.”
“It was a welcome challenge,” Imbriano said of his opportunity to play this weekend, just minutes from his nearby hometown of Stoneham, Mass. “I’m thankful for the chance to play, even though I’m a little disappointed we didn’t pull it out.”
The first period featured plenty of offensive opportunities for both clubs, but thanks to the stellar goaltending by the rookies, the game was scoreless through 20 minutes.
Each netminder was forced to stop one breakaway — Imbriano on Nick Parillo at 7:40 and Exter on Ciro Longobardi at 17:06. Each club registered two power plays that generated plenty of scoring chances, as Merrimack outshot UConn, 12-10, in the opening stanza.
At 6:44 of the second period, Merrimack finally broke the deadlock, thanks to some tic-tac-toe passing and a perfect finish by Parillo. With UConn’s Eric Nelson off for hooking, the Merrimack power play converted as Anthony Aquino corralled a Stephen Moon pass and fed Parillo alone in the slot. The junior winger wristed a hard shot along the ice that beat Imbriano between the legs for the 1-0 lead.
Just 1:57 later, penalties proved hurtful again to the Huskies as the Warrior power play converted consecutively. This time it was Moon blasting a hard wrist shot over Imbriano’s left shoulder to extend the Merrimack lead to 2-0.
At 12:01 of the second, the Warriors had a golden opportunity to extend the lead to 3-0. Jayson Philbin provided a beautiful deke move to finish off a 2-on-1, but somehow Imbriano, who appeared beaten cleanly, dove backwards and made the stop — a definite highlight-reel save.
UConn took advantage of that great save, when late in the period the Huskies pulled within a goal. Skating shorthanded, Matt Herhal tipped home the rebound of a Michael Goldkind shot after Merrimack’s Moon couldn’t hold the puck in the offensive zone at the left point. The goal at 18:47 closed the gap to 2-1 and gave the Huskies the momentum heading into the third period.
Merrimack, though, snuffed out that momentum very early as they caught UConn getting a bit too aggressive. When Exter turned aside a solid offensive chance for the Huskies, the Warriors capitalized on a defensive pinch by UConn that allowed Vince Clevenger to skate alone behind the Husky defense. Alex Sikatchev’s pass found Clevenger with a breakaway that Clevenger buried inside the left post for the 3-1 lead.
But the resilient Huskies continued to fight back. Just one second after a Merrimack penalty to Philbin expired, Eric Nelson shot from the right point deflected multiple times in front of the net before finding Herhal’s stick for him to tip home his second goal of the night.
The Huskies’ comeback bid fell short, though, and when Merrimack’s Lucas Smith scored his first career goal into an open net with 12 seconds to play, the final verdict was in.
The win improved Merrimack’s record to 2-1-1, the best start in the three years of the Serino era at the school. UConn fell to 0-3-0, but hopes to get back on track with these three non-league games behind them.
Both clubs will begin their respective league schedules next weekend. UConn will host Sacred Heart next Friday evening when the Huskies unveil their 2000 MAAC Championship banner. Merrimack travels to UMass-Amherst that same evening to face Hockey East’s newest coach, “Toot” Cahoon and his Minutemen.