BOSTON — If you’re the Boston College Eagles, a team that boasts three 20-goal scorers including Hobey Baker candidate Brian Gionta in its arsenal of players, it might be very easy to lick your chops at the thought of an offensive explosion facing eighth seed Merrimack in the quarterfinal of the Hockey East playoffs.
The only tally the Eagles could muster was a fluky goal from rookie Tony Voce, but still they managed to do what they do best — win.
Thanks to a masterful defensive effort that included a 23-save shutout for senior goaltender Scott Clemmensen, Boston College rode Voce’s tally to a 1-0 victory over Merrimack to take the lead in the best-of-three series. The two teams will face off again on Saturday night in game two.
“Playoff hockey always seems to be a little more tight-checking, a little closer to the vest,” said Eagles coach Jerry York, whose squad improved to 27-8-2 with the victory. “On top of that, tonight you had two goaltenders who played well and came up pretty big.”
“Big” may be a bit of an overstatement for Clemmensen, who collected his school-record 11th career shutout, but wasn’t tested with many quality chances. But simultaneously, big is an understatement for the play of Merrimack goaltender Tom Welby, who made 31 stops in defeat — many of the spectacular nature.
A senior, Welby has not had the swan-song farewell tour this season that he probably deserved. Entering the year with 74 games played, Welby only appeared 16 times, and started only three of the final 10 games before the playoffs. Regardless, Merrimack head coach Chris Serino didn’t think playing Welby was too difficult a decision.
“In the final two weekends, we were faced with two games that we had to get points in,” said Serino. “Welby got a tie against Maine, and [goaltender Joe] Exter got a win at BU.
“They both played well all week in practice and have played well down the stretch, so I had confidence in both.”
Serino did say, though, that Exter will start game two on Saturday night, something that was planned earlier in the week.
Special teams are an aspect that one might expect to decide a game involving BC, whose power play has clicked at better than 22 percent most of the year. But, following the script of the night, the BC power play was not a factor.
What was a factor on special teams was Merrimack’s lack of opportunity. Boston College was only whistled for one penalty that put them on the shorthand, and that lasted just 23 seconds before a Merrimack penalty ended the advantage.
Said York: “In low-scoring games, you have to hold your composure and poise. We did that tonight [giving Merrimack only one power play]. That really pleased me.”
Actually, it was a good thing, as Merrimack posted its biggest scoring threat of the night during the shortened power play. Warriors sophomore Anthony Aquino stared down an open net after fishing out a rebound in front, but somehow Clemmensen spun across the crease with his glove, making a miraculous save.
“That was more of a lucky save and me being in position,” laughed Clemmensen after the game. “It was probably my toughest and best save of the night, but it was lucky.”
The game opened with as much zest as dry toast, with neither team mustering an opportunity for most of the first period. BC had the best scoring chance when Voce blocked a Tony Johnson shot and had a clean break towards Welby in the final minute, but Stephen Moon was able to barely catch up to Voce and forced him to steer his shot wide of the right post. It was the first of four breakaways Welby would save on the night.
Little improved in the game’s pace as the second period got underway, but nonetheless, it was early on that the Eagles tallied the game’s only goal.
Brooks Orpik, attempting to fire a shot on goal after wheeling out of the left corner, had his shot deflect off the skate of Merrimack’s John Pyliotis. The deflection landed right in the path of Voce, who one-timed it easily past a shocked Welby for the night’s only goal at 1:16.
“[Krys] Kolanos had picked up the puck and gave it to Brooks coming out of the corner,” Voce said. “He went to shoot and it deflected and I was standing right there in the high slot.”
Asked about his instinct to shoot, Voce joked, “What did you want me to do? I was all by myself with no one else around me.”
Obviously the shot paid off.
BC controlled the pace for much of the second period, but Merrimack still had some quality chances. Besides Aquino’s power-play chance, Ron Mongeau plucked a shot from the high slot right off the post at 14:22, with the rebound coming back between Clemmensen’s legs, but no Warrior could stuff it home.
The third period was much the same, as the Eagles had the best scoring chances. Welby was forced to stop breakaways by Kolanos, Ales Dolinar and Voce again.
All the while the Warriors mustered few chances, even late in the game with the goaltender pulled.
“This isn’t a moral victory,” said Serino. “I don’t care if it’s one to nothing or 10 to nothing, we didn’t win. We’re past the stage where we need to count moral victories.
“We played well in the last eight minutes of the game and I told the team to carry that enthusiasm and effort over into [Saturday] night.”
With the rematch at hand, Boston College will look to close out Merrimack to advance to the Hockey East final four for the fourth consecutive year and the 11th time in the 17-year history of the league.
A Merrimack win on Saturday night would force a third and deciding game Sunday.