LEWISTON, N.Y. — Niagara competed in spurts with Merrimack at Dwyer Arena on Friday.
That’s not enough for a CHA team to win a game against a Hockey East opponent, even if it is the conference’s cellar-dweller, as Merrimack secured a 4-2 verdict in front of an announced crowd of 1,002.
Ryan Kiley and Anthony Aquino each finished with a goal and an assist, while Alex Sikatchev and Tim Foster also scored for the Warriors (3-6), who snapped a four-game losing streak. It was Merrimack’s first win under associate head coach Mike Doneghey, who’s running the show while head coach Chris Serino is on leave for cancer treatments.
“It’s been tough on the team. A guy you look up to, a coach and mentor, comes down with an illness like that, it’s going to affect the team,” Aquino said. “Life’s day-to-day for him [Serino]. We got one for him tonight. Today was a great effort by the whole team. If we can get two wins, that would be great.”
The Purple Eagles skated well in the opening period, but were outworked in the final 40 minutes en route to their second straight defeat. NU also got too fancy on offense, turning the puck over too many times against a team with an outstanding transition game. Merrimack came into the game yielding an average of 40 shots and just under four goals.
“We wanted to get it deep and make their ‘D’ work and pivot and go after dumps all night, and we didn’t do that,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “The bottom line is Merrimack outworked us. We had so many opportunities to play through a Merrimack jersey and we did not for whatever reason. That cost us the game.”
Freshman Barret Ehgoetz scored twice in the third period on power plays for Niagara (7-4). The Purple Eagles outshot their guests 34-33, but did not have nearly as many quality chances as the Warriors.
NU goalie Rob Bonk kept things close through two periods, turning aside 26-of-28 shots, but was lifted in favor of Mike Pataran with 13:24 left in the third after giving up two goals on three shots.
“It was more to slow down Merrimack instead of using a timeout,” said Burkholder of lifting Bonk. “Mike did a great job coming off the bench in Huntsville. We thought this just might take Merrimack out of their flow.”
Pataran, who relieved Bonk in NU’s last game, stopped the only two shots he faced.
Merrimack scored its final three goals high, glove-side. The Warriors noticed that Bonk, a butterfly goalie, was dropping a bit early and made the 6-foot-4 sophomore and the Eagles pay the price.
“We’ve got some kids who can shoot the puck pretty good. When they get in that tight and they go up high, it’s got a good shot of going in,” Doneghey said. “I thought the guys paid attention to detail tonight.”
Aquino’s goal at 6:36 of the third hurt the most. He scored off a transition rush following an Eagle turnover in Merrimack’s zone 35 seconds after Ehgoetz scored to pull Niagara within 3-1. The speedy Aquino hesitated slightly before firing a shot from the right circle over Bonk’s glove.
“He kind of cheated a little bit to the left. I just saw an open top corner,” Aquino said.
Niagara killed off a two-man advantage early in the first period as both teams used quickness and grit to produce scoring chances. Merrimack scored at 17:13 when Sikatchev picked up a loose puck at the left hash marks and beat Bonk. Kiley flipped a puck high in the air that came down in the NU zone and landed between a Niagara defenseman and Aquino, who managed to whack the puck to Kiley even though he was tied up.
The Warriors increased the lead to 2-0 when Foster notched his first career goal at 9:34 of the second period, floating a shot from the left dasher past a partially-screened Bonk.
“I just found a rebound sitting on the boards and fired it home,” Foster, a senior, said. “Basically, in our forecheck, we just take away the wall and I just threw the puck on net. Nothing much to it.”
Kiley rifled a shot from just inside the Niagara blue line at 2:24 of the third to give Merrimack a 3-0 lead.
Ehgoetz closed the scoring with 1:12 left.
Senior goalie Joe Exter finished with 32 saves for the Warriors.
The teams meet again at 7 p.m. Saturday at Dwyer Arena.