NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — If the UNH Wildcats were salesmen, they’d be the best closers around. Well, at least they are on the ice.
Leading 2-1 on the road at Merrimack through forty minutes of play, the Wildcats took the play to the Warriors in the final twenty minutes, adding two goals early in the period to account for a 4-1 final.
“There were a lot of one-on-one battles in the third period that we were winning,” said UNH head coach Dick Umile. “It was a strong third period defensively for us. We shut them down defensively and the offense came from that.”
UNH, which took a 2-0 lead in the first period only to watch Merrimack dominate play for much of the second and close the gap to one, received third-period goals from Sean Austin and Matt Swain, while goaltender Ty Conklin (28 saves) shut the door on the few quality Merrimack shots to seal the win.
The win stretched the UNH unbeaten streak against Merrimack to 18 games (16-0-2), spanning nearly six seasons. Eleven of those games have been since Chris Serino (0-10-1), a former UNH assistant coach, stepped behind the bench at Merrimack.
Offensively, the hero for New Hampshire was no surprise. Junior Darren Hayder, who ranks second in Hockey East in scoring, notched a goal and an assist in the opening period. At the same time, Conklin, who after the game was reported as battling the flu, remained solid in net, having now allowed just two goals in his last four starts.
According to Umile “there’s a good chance that he will not be playing,” on Saturday night due to his health.
For Merrimack, the story is all too familiar. The effort was inconsistent.
“I thought we played well defensively for the first two periods, especially late in the second,” said Serino. “But in the third we had too many defensive breakdowns.
“It’s all about consistency, though. When we play consistent for three periods, we play well. When we don’t, well, you see what happens.”
In net for Merrimack, rookie Joe Exter (28 saves) could receive no fault for performance. Early in the game, Exter withstood a speedy UNH attack, making quality saves to keep the Warriors in it.
Serino, about Exter’s performance, noted that he “played well,” but would not guarantee that he would be the starter on Saturday night when these two clubs rematch at the Whittemore Center in Durham, N.H.
It didn’t take long for UNH to get on the scoreboard. At 4:50 of the first, Haydar took a pass in the neutral zone and wheeled around Marco Rosa to get a clear chance on Exter. As the rookie goaltender fell to his side, Haydar slid the puck underneath him to give the Wildcats a 1-0 lead.
Rosa nearly made up for his mistake 35 seconds later when he was left uncovered in front of Conklin. But the UNH netminder got down early and blocked the low shot.
Offensive chances continued as UNH’s Jim Abbott forced his way around the Warrior defense and unleashed a bullet. The shot beat Exter but clanged solidly off the post, keeping the score 1-0.
Both teams traded chances through the middle and late part of the first period, with the Wildcats getting the best opportunities. At 15:16, Exter made a sliding save after Lanny Gare threaded a beautiful pass through traffic to Eric Lind at the right post. Exter, though, stacked the pads to keep the puck out.
Merrimack, which led in shots in the period, 13-10, looked like they would escape the first down only 1-0. But with 4.5 second left, the Wildcats changed that.
Alex Sikatchev turned the puck over to Haydar, allowing him to set up defenseman Mike Lubesnick all alone in front. Exter did his job saving the point blank shot, but Abbott as left uncovered and push the puck into the open net for the 2-0 lead.
But instead of folding, the Warriors came out focused in the second and controlled the early play. After doing an excellent job cycling the puck, Anthony Aquino’s centering pass banked off the stick of goaltender Conklin and between his pads to cut the UNH lead to one.
The pace of the game slowed down through the middle of the second, favoring Merrimack. The Warriors defense seemed to, at least for the moment, slow Merrimack’s run-and-gun style of the first period.
And with six minutes remaining in the second, it was the Warriors’ offense that applied the pressure. Again, constant cycling, particularly by the Nick Parillo-Aquino-Rosa line, kept UNH hemmed in the defensive zone and allowed for two solid Warrior bids.
It was Rosa that found himself open twice, at 14:10 and then again two minutes later. But both times, Conklin made the save, sliding across the crease for the first one and closing up the five hole on the second.
Importantly for the Warriors, they continued to control the offense, outshooting the Cats, 9-8, in the period, and trailing by just a goal entering the final two minutes.
But the Wildcats, whose best offensive period has been the third, struck early in the final period to regain the two-goal lead. Fourth-line winger Jeff Haydar, brother of Darren, placed a drop pass on the blade of Austin and then perfect set a screen for Austin to shoot through. His shot rose high on a stunned Exter and beat him over the glove.
“The goal that was the backbreaker was the third [UNH] goal,” said Serino. “It was a three-on-three, but the defense [played it] soft and the backchecker stood next to [Austin] and didn’t lay a stick on him. On top of that, it was a goal you wouldn’t expect [Exter] to let up.”
At 4:45, things got worse for the Warriors when the Cats struck again. Matt Swain was left alone in the slot, allowing rookie center Nathan Martz to feed a pass. Swain shot for the left corner, narrowly past a diving Exter, to give UNH its first three-goal lead at 4-1.
UNH looked like they’d make it 5-1 when Mark White was sent in alone on Exter. But a miraculous blocker save while falling against the grain kept the puck out and the UNH lead at three.
From there, it was UNH’s solid defense that maintain the victory.
“Tonight’s over though,” noted Umile, referring to his team’s need to play as well in Saturday’s rematch. “We’ll take the two points.”
The win improves UNH’s record to 15-4-4 (6-2-3 Hockey East). The two points allow UNH to move into a tie for second place with Providence, which played a non-league game against Iona, winning 6-2. Both teams remain two points in back of Boston College, 2-1 winners at UMass-Lowell.
Merrimack continues its slide, having now dropped three in a row for the first time all season. The Warriors drop to 10-12-1 (3-7-0 in Hockey East) and remain in the Hockey East cellar, two points behind Lowell and UMass-Amherst with both teams losing.