BOSTON — “Old-time hockey” was the expression that Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder used to describe his Huskies’ 3-1 victory over Merrimack on Thursday night.
Though the game was missing players who resembled anything near Eddie Shore or Bobby Hull, and there wasn’t much rough stuff, Crowder used the reference to talk about the importance of the game itself.
“It was a good old four-pointer,” said Crowder, referring to the old NHL reference for two teams playing while vying for one spot in the standing — four points accounting for the two points the winners get and the two points the losers don’t.
“This was a big win for us. We played well defensively and got goals from guys that we should get goals from.
“Now we need to carry this momentum with us into [Saturday's game against UMass-]Amherst.”
The win, coupled with UMass-Lowell’s win over UMass-Amherst, breaks the Huskies from a seventh-place tie with Merrimack and catapults them into fifth place over Amherst. A win against Amherst on Saturday, combined with Maine losing its weekend series with BC on Friday and Saturday, could push the Huskies as high as fourth place by week’s end.
All of this comes just days after Northeastern sat alone in last place before a 5-3 win over UNH on Saturday.
“I don’t remember the league ever being this close,” said Crowder about the parity in Hockey East, especially among the bottom six teams. “We can’t get too excited about [being in fifth place]. There’s no more slam dunks. It’s an absolute grind every night.”
While the Huskies move up the Hockey East ladder, Thursday night’s loss set Merrimack back to last place in the league with no games on the agenda in the upcoming weekend.
“You win a couple of games and suddenly you can be right up there,” said Merrimack coach Chris Serino. “But if you lose a couple, you can go to the bottom.”
And that, unfortunately for them, is exactly what the Warriors did.
The first period saw both teams trade early chances. Merrimack’s Ryan Kiley walked out of the right-hand corner and fired not one, but two shots on Northeastern goaltender Mike Gilhooly (21 saves) from the short side at 2:20. And just 22 seconds later, Northeastern’s Eric Ortlip was stopped by Merrimack netminder Tom Welby (28 saves) on a two-on-one.
After the clubs alternated power plays midway through the first period, Northeastern finally got on the board. At 12:45, Willie Levesque left a drop pass for Graig Mischler on a rush up the right wing. Using Levesque as a screen, Mischler fired a snap shot over the shoulder of Welby, giving the Huskies a 1-0 lead.
The Warriors struggled defensively for the remainder of the period, but looked like they would escape trailing by only a goal. But with just four seconds remaining, Welby returned a Sean MacDonald wraparound bid that MacDonald stuffed through Welby’s pads for his third goal of the year, giving the Huskies a 2-0 lead through one.
It was a goal that both coaches called backbreaking.
“Anytime you give up a goal defensively, it’s hard,” said Serino. “That goal was a total defensive breakdown for us. We have guys around the net not taking their man, and we have two forwards playing out at the red line. There’s four seconds left and they’re at the red line.”
Said Crowder, “That’s gotta be a hard one for Chris [Serino]. All of a sudden we have a 2-0 lead and you have a little breathing room. It was a turning point.”
Merrimack controlled the early going in the second period but could not answer the Huskies until the 13th minute. At 12:22, two-thirds of the “Italian Stallion” line of Anthony Aquino, Marco Rosa and Nick Parillo combined to pull the Warriors within a goal. Aquino finished of a pass from Parillo on a partial two-on-one for his 12th goal of the season.
The Huskies, though, regained a two-goal advantage at 16:44 on the power play. Just eight seconds after Merrimack’s Tim Foster was sent off for obstruction interference, Mike Ryan blasted a pass from Mischler over the shoulder of Welby to give Northeastern a 3-1 lead through two.
While the third period should have been Merrimack’s chance at a rally, penalties and missed chances cost the Warriors. Consecutively Merrimack’s Lou Eyster, Tim Foster and Rosa all were sent off, leaving Merrimack to kill nearly six minutes of shorthanded time.
“We took some bad penalties in the third period,” said Serino. “We had to kill [a lot] of minutes, and you’re not going to get back into a game by taking those penalties.”
And that summed up the night. Merrimack made little to no charge down the stretch, and the Huskies waltzed to their second consecutive Hockey East win at home.
Northeastern plays just one game during the weekend, a road game at UMass-Amherst on Saturday night. Merrimack will be off for the weekend, but returns to action next Friday night when the Warriors host New Hampshire.