NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Both teams entered the weekend on the skids. Nebraska-Omaha stayed there, dropping its fourth straight game and seventh consecutive one on the road. By contrast, Merrimack completed its U-turn with a sweep one week after getting embarrassed by Boston College in a home-and-home series.
After shutting out the Mavericks one night earlier, Merrimack goaltender Joe Exter stopped 27 of 28 shots to backstop the Warriors to a 2-1 win.
“He’s steady,” MC coach Chris Serino said. “He’ll take a goal or two away from you and he won’t let any soft ones in. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Senior captain Stephen Moon’s shot from the point at 14:30 of the third period deflected off a UNO player and through a screen formed by Nick Parillo and Joe Gray for the game-winner. Like the contest’s other goals, it came on the power play.
“It was important after the win we had last night to come back and play [well again tonight,]” said Moon. “Midnight last night, a new day started. We needed to come and play for this game.”
As a result, Merrimack climbed to within one game of .500 with a 6-7-1 record. Nebraska-Omaha fell to 6-8.
UNO coach Mike Kemp was none too subtle in giving his club a road wake-up call. The Mavs had posted a 5-1 record at home, but after winning their first road contest had lost six straight. As a result, he opted to dress only three lines, an action he thought was probably the first of his coaching career.
“Desperate times deserve desperate measures,” he said. “We haven’t had a great deal of success on the road. We felt that we needed to send some messages to our players both in uniform and out of uniform, whether they’re here or at home.
“We have to become a better hockey team. If that means that we play with a shorter bench because players aren’t playing the style or to the level of intensity that we expect, then that’s what we’ll have to do then.”
The game, however, proved chock full of penalties, a less-than-ideal combination with only three lines. Referee Bill Doiron whistled 12 penalties on UNO and eight on Merrimack.
“The guys in the lineup tonight gave us a great effort,” said Kemp. “They played hard from start to finish. It’s unfortunate that we had to get into a game that had that many penalties because when you’re in that kind of a contest, if you’re playing with a short bench it makes it much more difficult because you’re using the same guys over and over again for the same situations. It sure doesn’t play in your favor.”
Nonetheless, when asked if he second-guessed his extreme solution to the Mavs’ road woes, he quickly answered, “Not at all. …
“We had some very courageous performances tonight by guys that went unnoticed. Billy Pugliese popped the shoulder he had surgery on — popped it out and played the rest of the game. Bernie — [Dave Noel-Bernier] — took a slash on the wrist and could hardly hold his stick in the third period. Guys really sucked it up.”
Nebraska-Omaha came out strong, forcing Exter to make two sharp saves in the opening minute. The Mavericks continued to have the better of play over the first six minutes, highlighted by an excellent chance by Noel-Bernier.
However, they then took the first of four first-period penalties to only one for Merrimack, all but handing the territorial advantage over to the Warriors. Nonetheless, the Nebraska penalty-killing forecheck eroded much of that potential, frustrating the breakout time after time and using up valuable seconds.
Merrimack’s best chances on their power plays came at 8:40 and 17:30 in the form of two-on-one rushes, first by Alex Sikatchev and Nick Parillo and later by John Pyliotis and Ryan Kiley. In the former case, they lost the puck off the dribble in front and in the latter UNO goaltender Dan Ellis made the stop on Pyliotis.
Between the two-on-ones, the two teams took turns hitting the post, UNO’s Jeff Hoggan clanging iron first but then matched by Kiley off a nice feed by Vince Clevenger.
After five total power plays in the first period generated meager results, both teams scored on the man advantage in the second to leave the game deadlocked, this time at 1-1.
The Mavs’ goal came shortly after Merrimack took off on a shorthanded three-on-one rush, but couldn’t get a shot off after the pass back to the middle man went into his skates. Instead of the huge momentum swing of a shorthanded goal, Nebraska-Omaha brought the puck back up ice and James Chalmers stuffed in a rebound from the doorstep. Coming at 4:48, the power-play goal came after a frigid 4-for-53 eight-game stretch while a man up.
Merrimack almost countered at 13:45 with a power play of its own when freshman defenseman Darren Clarke, playing in only his second game, set up Pyliotis nicely from the left point, but the senior couldn’t pull the trigger instantly. In the split second it took him to corral the puck, Ellis recovered and made the stop.
At 18:16, however, the Warriors got the man-advantage equalizer. With UNO in the box as a result of a Sikatchev rush, Kiley took the puck over the blue line and beat Ellis low to the far side from 30 feet.
Merrimack had the better chances midway through the third period, but couldn’t capitalize until Moon’s power-play slap shot. Soon after taking the 2-1 lead, the Warriors generated first a three-on-one and then a two-on-one. By not scoring on either, they left the door slightly ajar for a Maverick comeback. A Merrimack penalty with 2:15 remaining, however, seemed to fling the door wide open.
Exter held the fort, though, not allowing any rebounds in the resulting six-on-four play. With 42 seconds remaining, UNO picked up a penalty of its own and Merrimack was then able to run out the clock.