PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Solid goaltending, tough defense, a late third-period score and a game-ending brawl were just a few of the exciting ingredients found in Saturday’s hard-fought contest between the Providence Friars and the Merrimack Warriors.
The Friars, though, controlled the tempo most of the way, and despite being stonewalled on 36 shots by Merrimack goaltender Joe Exter, ultimately solved the netminder on a late Devin Rask goal to gain a crucial 1-0 win.
The victory is especially significant in that — coupled with the Friars’ 4-3 win at Northeastern on Friday — it gives PC a four-point weekend, catapulting the Friars into sole possession of second place in Hockey East.
The game was marred, however, by the inconsistent officiating of Jeff Bunyon, with patches of penalties and then long stretches of no-calls culminating in an ugly fight as time ran out, one that resulted in a pair of game disqualifications between the two teams.
The first two periods found the Friars carrying the play and outshooting Merrimack (11-5 in the first period, 14-6 in the second for a 25-11 advantage), but the story of the game was Merrimack’s solid defense and, even more significantly, the play of their goaltender.
Exter previously snake-bit the Friars in a 4-1 Warriors win at Schneider in December, and displayed the same form on Saturday that he showed in the earlier victory.
The Friars had good chances but Exter deftly guarded the net, and if he wasn’t perfect, he was lucky: a pair of shots hit the crossbar and the Warriors’ defense was consistently solid in clearing the puck out of its own end.
While the officiating crew frequently called penalties in bunches (resulting in odd-man situations of 4-on-4 play, even a 3-on-3 scenario at one point), neither the Friars or Warriors found much rhythm on their respective power-plays.
Both PC and MC lead the league in penalty killing, so it was no surprise that both special teams units excelled short handed: MC went 0-for-6 on the night, while the Friars went 0-for-5 on the man advantage.
Still, the Friars’ shots reflected the time of possession in the game, with much of the action taking place in the Warriors’ end.
In the third period, neither team seemed as if it could break the ice. PC’s Nolan Schaefer looked solid but was bailed out several times by the strong play of his own defenders, who cleared a few big rebounds out of harm’s way.
Finally, the Friars broke through as Jay Leach sent a pass ahead for Jon DiSalvatore, who broke in on an odd-man rush with teammate Devin Rask.
With DiSalvatore heading for the net, Rask opted to take the shot on Exter, and held the puck for what almost seemed to be too long before wristing one upstairs on the Merrimack goaltender.
This time, the crossbar couldn’t bail out the MC netminder, as the shot sailed over Exter’s shoulder inside the right post. The goal, Rask’s 15th, gave PC a 1-0 lead at 17:50 of the third period.
The Friars kept pressuring the Merrimack end late, but the Warriors rallied for a series of shots on Schaefer as Exter headed for the bench.
MC’s Stephen Moon sent a flurry of slap shots from the blue line in on Schaefer, but the goaltender held his ground and the Friars ultimately were able to ice the puck as time wound down.
With three seconds left in the game, and the face-off to Schaefer’s left, the Friars won the draw and time expired, though the two teams subsequently broke into an ugly skirmish after the buzzer sounded.
Gloves were dropped, Exter skated up the ice to get in on the action, and there were several nervous moments when PC coach Paul Pooley and Merrimack coach Chris Serino ran onto the ice to prevent the benches from emptying and joining in the donnybrook.
While the Merrimack bench did empty (with the MC players standing firm at center ice), Pooley was able to hold the Friars back, and the fight ended with several bloody jerseys with sticks and helmets scattered about.
While minor penalties were assessed to MC’s John Pylitiois and Vincent Clevenger (a double-minor for high sticking), and PC’s Jay Leach and Matt Libby (who received a total of 10 penalty minutes all by himself Saturday), significant members of both teams were given game disqualifications: PC’s Jon DiSalvatore and Merrimack’s Nick Cammarata.
Both players will have to sit out their next game, which is especially unfortunate for DiSalvatore since the Friars — already minus the services of Drew Omicioli this weekend — will need to be at full strength to play with Boston College on Friday at Schneider.
The win, nevertheless, was a big one for the Friars, who raised their record to 15-7-4 (9-5-2 in Hockey East with a pair of games in hand on most league teams), while the Warriors drop a tough loss with a 12-15-3 mark (5-11-2 league).
PC hosts BC on Friday while Merrimack returns to action at home against UMass-Lowell next Sunday at the Volpe Complex.