NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — It was a weekend of hockey that rivaled a Kasparov-Karpov chess match. Strategy and thinking replaced unbridled skating and fluid puck moving.
But in the end, thanks to a late goal by Tony Johnson breaking a 1-1 tie, the Merrimack Warriors earned a two-game sweep of Niagara with a 2-1 victory on Saturday. Merrimack won the opening game of the series, 2-0, on Friday night.
“It was a matter of who was going to turn the puck over more, who would make a mistake,” Merrimack coach Chris Serino said. “[Niagara] is very similar to us.”
What looked like a potential stalemate ended with Johnson’s tally with 3:11 remaining in regulation. After taking a pass from Steve Moon at the right point, Johnson wristed the puck through traffic and beat Niagara goaltender Rob Bonk (33 saves) over the right shoulder.
“I was just trying to get in on the net,” Johnson said about the goal, the first of his young career. “The next thing I knew, it went in.”
Niagara coach Blaise MacDonald, who dressed nine freshmen after dressing 10 in the series opener on Friday, needed to play a trap-style game against Merrimack. Midway through the second period, things did open up for a while, but that’s not something that bothered MacDonald.
“We wanted to take whatever game was given to us,” MacDonald said. “We didn’t mind playing a fast-paced game as well [as a slower, strategic game] because we’ve got some players who have some good speed.”
MacDonald admitted, though, that it was faceoffs, and not the speed of the game that resulted in the loss.
“We couldn’t win a defensive zone draw,” MacDonald said. “Merrimack got all of their goals of us not winning faceoffs.”
MacDonald also noted that Merrimack’s defense contributing to the offense helped greatly.
“[Merrimack] has the ability to get the put to the net from their defensemen. Our defensemen don’t do that.”
Johnson’s late goal spoiled an outstanding performance by Bonk, who was tested often from close range and allowed only the two goals, both through tough screens. MacDonald joked about Bonk’s ability to help his club.
“The only thing I don’t like about his is that he’s a foot taller than me,” MacDonald said about his 6-foot-4 netminder. “He squares himself well and makes all the expected saves. His one weakeness has been moving the puck, but tonight I thought he did that very well.”
On the other end, Joe Exter (28 saves), a rookie for the Warriors, made his seventh consecutive start in goal. Including Saturday’s game, Exter has allowed one goal or less in five of those seven starts, winning all of them. Saturday’s win improved his record to 7-4-0, and lowered the 2.79 goals against average he held entering the game.
The opening period provided a bit more excitement than Friday’s series opener, with Niagara outshooting Merrimack, 11-10. Likewise, the Niagara offense that struggled for quality chances on Friday, wasted no time getting the puck to the net.
Four minutes into the period, Chris Sebastian set up Thomas Clayton on the doorstep, but Exter, placing the paddle of his stick along the ice, stopped the quick wrister and turned aside the rebound.
Merrimack had its best chance late in the period, when an Anthony Aquino blast from the right wing was steered aside by Bonk, keeping the game scoreless.
The Niagara power play, which, at 4.8 percent has basically been non-existent all year, didn’t get much puck luck on its only attempt in the first. John Heffernan’s blast from the left faceoff dot beat Exter cleanly but rang off the post to the left of the goalie.
At 17:38, though, Niagara finally broke the deadlock when Mike Bozoian picked off a breakout pass by Merrimack defenseman Eric Pedersen. Bozoian walked into the high slot and fired a shot that beat Exter through a screen for Bozoian’s first career goal, giving the Purple Eagles a 1-0 lead.
“After they scored the goal, I thought we woke up a little,” Serino said about his Warrior squad. “We were a little bit lackadaisical early in the game but then we started to come on well.”
Early in the second period, matching penalties created a four-on-four situation and the skating room on the small Volpe Complex ice that these two teams had wanted for two nights. And with that open ice Merrimack took advantage. The Warriors created a series of offensive zone draw, with this third one finally paying off.
Vince Clevenger won the draw to the right corner, where Ron Mongeau picked up the puck and quickly fed Johnson at the right point. Johnson pushed the puck across to Moon at the left point and he fired a quick wrist shot to the net. With a heavy screen in front of Bonk, the rookie netminder never saw the puck coming, getting beaten over the left shoulder, tying the game at 1.
The goal, ironically, was a mirror image of the game-winning goal that was scored in the third period.
When the teams returned to full strength, one thing was different — the chess match had virtually ended, for the moment. Both teams had abandoned the neutral-zone trap, adding a speed to the game that had been lost for nearly four-and-a-half periods.
The beneficiary was Merrimack — transitioning the puck well and getting the quality shots it had hoped for. But Bonk proved to be the wall guarding the queen, making stop after stop, finishing the period with 19 saves. No save was better than a toe save while moving across the crease on Alex Sikatchev near the end of a Warrior power play, keeping the game deadlocked through two periods.
Early in the third, Clevenger had the perfect chance to give Merrimack the lead, beating Bonk cleanly on a three-on-one. But his shot rang off the crossbar and post, allowing Bonk to breathe a sigh of relief, for the moment.
About the win, Serino said that his club “is starting to believe that they can win close games.”
Merrimack has now won five of its last six games, with four of them coming by margins of two goals or less.
The win improved Merrimack’s record to 9-8-1, the first time the club has been above .500 since Oct. 27. Important to Serino is that it gives the Warriors a chance to accomplish a goal.
“We’ve had a goal all year to have 10 wins at the Christmas break,” Serino said. “Now we have a chance.”
It’s a chance that will be on the line when the club hosts Dartmouth next Friday night, the last game before break for Merrimack.
Niagara dropped to 6-9-3 with the loss, and will now take three weeks off for the holiday break. Niagara returns to action on Dec. 30 when it hosts Bowling Green.