NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Merrimack College head coach Chris Serino can go to bed feeling good about one thing after a 2-0 win against Niagara University on Friday night: his young club is maturing.
In a game where offensive was at a minimum, Serino’s Warriors securely protected a two-goal lead through the late stages of the third period, something Serino considers a benchmark of success.
“[The team] is learning how to win,” said Serino. “We’ve won a lot of close games and for a young team, that’s good.
“In the last six minutes of the game, we took charge. We had complete control. Last year, we’d be running around the zone [late in the game].”
Though offense was a minimum, not only on the scoreboard, but also the shot chart that saw Merrimack outshoot the Purple Eagles, 26-22, Merrimack manufactured two goals with hard work along the walls.
Included in the two-goal mix was a power-play tally by sophomore Anthony Aquino. The goal broke an 0-for-10 slump that the Warriors suffered last weekend in a two-game set against Providence.
“Last weekend, I thought we moved the puck well on the power play,” said Serino. “I knew that if we just kept moving the puck well and getting the shots, eventually one would go in.”
Conversely, Niagara’s power play, which has dropped from the best in the nation last season to the worst this season, continued to struggle against Merrimack. In five opportunities, the Purple Eagles only mustered four shots.
Niagara coach Blaise MacDonald gave clear reasoning why.
“It’s personnel,” said MacDonald. “When you have five guys [on the power play] that can’t outwork their four, you can’t have a power play.”
And that lack of personnel comes mainly from a lack of experience, MacDonald pointed out. After graduating 15 players last season, the most in the country, the Niagara lineup is laden with youth.
“We dress about 12 freshmen a night,” said MacDonald. “Recently we’ve had some puck luck, and when you get some goals like that, it can give your guys a little jump.”
Tonight, though, Niagara’s luck ran dry: enter Merrimack goaltender Joe Exter (22 saves). Making his sixth consecutive start for the Warriors, Exter turned aside the shots he had to, but more importantly played the puck well defensively, not allowing the Niagara offense time to set up.
“It’s hard to hold your focus when you don’t see a lot of shot,” said Exter. “But I had to play the puck a lot early, and that got me in the game.”
“That was important,” noted Serino. “Niagara tried to dump the puck a lot, but Joe was able to get to the puck first and keep them for setting up.
The first period was best summarized as a defensive struggle. For 20 minutes neither team displayed solid offense, only solid defense. Two penalties against Niagara were the only ink marks on the score sheet, as the period ended scoreless.
“I thought both teams did a good job of closing the passing lane in the neutral zone,” said MacDonald. “That’s been one of our weaknesses and I was happy with how we played in the neutral zone tonight.”
Though the shots for the opening frame were even, it was Merrimack which posted the only grade ‘A’ attempt. John Pyliotis’ bid from high in the slot to finish a three-on-two seven minutes in was turned aside by Niagara goaltender Rob Bonk (24 saves) to keep the Warriors off the board.
But that didn’t last long at the start of the second, as Aquino opened the scoring just 39 seconds into the period. Picking up a rebound of a Tony Johnson shot while on the power play, Aquino patiently carried the puck through the slot, forcing Bonk down, giving the sophomore ample room to roof the puck for the 1-0 lead.
After that goal, though, the game returned to an offensive stalemate. Both defenses stood tall, with only two quality bids — one for each team — before the end of the second.
It was Aquino who yielded Merrimack’s best chance, taking a drop pass from Marco Rosa at 12:10 and quickly wristing it on net. Bonk, though, showed his catlike reflexes, barely deflecting the shot with his blocker.
Two minutes later, Niagara’s Drew Kriner was allowed to walk alone on Exter after Merrimack’s Stephen Moon turned the puck over. Exter, though, held the fort, following the shooter to the left post and making a pad save to preserve the one-goal lead through two.
In the third period, the Warriors got the insurance they needed from an unlikely hero. Eric Pedersen corralled a diagonal cross-zone pass at the left point from Alex Sikatchev and fired a hard wrister that beat bonk under the right arm. The goal was the first career point for Pedersen, playing in his eighth game of his rookie season.
From there, it was simply a question of maintaining pressure for Merrimack, which the Warriors did, allowing few scoring opportunities for Niagara for the remainder.
The win returns Merrimack to .500, with an 8-8-1 record. The loss ends a five-game winning streak for Niagara, and drops its record to 6-8-3.
The two clubs will rematch on Saturday night at the Volpe Complex.