DULUTH, Minn. — Merrimack sophomore Anthony Aquino scored two goals, including one shorthanded, while sophomore goaltender Joe Exter turned aside 34 Minnesota-Duluth shots as the Warriors won the first-day nightcap of the third annual Silverado Shootout, 4-2, at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.
Merrimack now plays what essentially is a championship game in the pre-seeded tournament Friday afternoon when it squares off with No. 7 Western Michigan. The Broncos blanked Colgate, 2-0, in opening game of the only holiday tourney in college hockey to feature a team from each of the four major Division I conferences.
Aquino’s shorthanded goal proved to be the game-winner at 1:26 of the third period. Five of his eight goals this season have been of the clinching variety, which is tops for all Division I players.
“I just tried shooting it on net and hoped something would happen,” said Aquino, who leads Merrimack with 22 points in 20 games. “I was pretty close to the goal line when I shot it. I didn’t know it was in the net until I turned around and looked in.”
Aquino received Player of the Game honors for his two-goal performance, but that distinction could have easily gone to Exter, who needed to make 14 saves in the third period to finish off his sixth win in his last seven starts.
His best came in robbing UMD’s Judd Medak with 9:16 remaining from down on the ice with his glove arm on a bid that would have tied the game at 3-3.
“I’m not sure we deserved to win this one,” said Merrimack coach Chris Serino, whose club is over .500 (10-9-1) this late in the season for the first time since the 1993-94 season. “Our goaltender stole some good scoring chances from them tonight. He took the game away from them on some shots.”
UMD, which was playing its best hockey of the season before the just-completed holiday break, owned the better of the scoring opportunities than did its Hockey East counterpart, but the Bulldogs continued to have difficulty finishing them off.
“If we would have played all three periods like we did the first, I’d be disappointed,” said Bulldog coach Scott Sandelin, whose team fell to 4-14-1 overall (1-10-1 WCHA). “We came back and played well the next two periods, but we just can’t bury the puck.”
Merrimack jumped out to a two-goal lead by the 11:08 mark of the first period. Junior Nick Parillo scored his team-high ninth goal of the season at 3:25, tipping in a soft wrist shot from defenseman Nick Cammarata at the top of the crease.
Another Merrimack defenseman was responsible for setting up the Warriors’ second goal as well. Senior Steve Moon picked up a loose puck at center ice and made a rare rush on UMD freshman goaltender Adam Coole, playing only his second game since Nov. 18. His wrist shot went wide to the short side on Coole, but ricocheted high off the backboards, where Moon’s 6-5 frame helped him grab the puck over the heads of two Bulldogs.
Moon immediately dropped the puck in front of him, circled out front and placed a backhand shot on Aquino’s stick. The Mississauga, Ont., native slid a backhander of his own underneath a sprawling Coole and the Warriors led, 2-0, before the 9:00 mark.
UMD sliced the lead in half five minutes later when sophomore Jon Francisco and junior Nate Anderson teamed up on a perfect give-and-go just over the Merrimack line. Francisco swooped in on Exter and roofed a backhander under the crossbar at 16:16 with his fifth of the season.
A scoreless second period featured some heated moments after the whistle, 24 minutes in penalties and the Bulldogs turning up the pressure.
UMD outshot Merrimack, 27-14, over the final 40 minutes with only senior Derek Derow penetrating the Warriors’ defense at 5:17 of the third, knocking in a Beau Geisler shot from the point while sitting on Exter’s doorstep.
Merrimack senior captain John Pyliotis scored an empty-net goal with 1:31 remaining in regulation to lock up the win. It cam almost immediately after UMD had called a timeout to talk over a plan of attack to net the tying goal with an extra skater on the ice.
“We’re all buying into our coach’s system,” Aquino said. “That’s important. Merrimack has been known in the past for high-scoring offenses and not much defense. Now offense comes second for us and it’s working for us.”
If Merrimack beats or ties Western Michigan, it will mean the first tournament championship for the Warriors since the program went Division I in 1989.
“I told the guys, we have an opportunity to win a major tournament and beat a No. 10 team in the country tomorrow,” Serino said. “There’s nothing better than that.”