HANOVER, N.H. — After the final buzzer sounded, Mike Maturo led a procession of players to the Dartmouth net, as Darren Gastrock received his share of congratulatory pats on the helmet for notching his first career win and helping the Big Green to snap a three-game losing streak.
Gastrock deserved the thank-yous.
The Big Green (5-4-1, 3-2-1 ECAC) received an energetic effort from its entire retooled lineup, but it was the sophomore netminder’s sterling glove save on a Greg Lauze shot with 25 seconds left that secured Dartmouth’s 3-2 win over Merrimack (6-10-0, 2-6-0 Hockey East) Saturday night in front of 2,215 at Thompson Arena and had everyone talking after the game.
“Darren made a couple of very key saves,” Dartmouth head coach Bob Gaudet said, “and obviously the glove save late in the game was just outstanding. It was an unbelievable save — as good a save as you’ll ever see.”
Gastrock earned the start after performing well as a third-period replacement in Dartmouth’s 3-2 loss to Vermont on Dec. 1. Usual starter Nick Boucher continued to struggle Thursday night against New Hampshire, earning Gastrock the nod in this game.
The Anchorage, Alaska, native made 27 saves in the triumph, including his big one against Lauze that sealed Dartmouth’s first win since Nov. 20 and Gastrock’s first victory in six career appearances.
“I had one big save at the end,” said Gastrock, who made his second career start and his first since Nov. 4, 2000. “The whole team obviously helped me out. I was glad to make that save. It feels great to get the ‘W.’”
Merrimack associate head coach Mike Doneghey, who continues to fill the lead role as head coach Chris Serino battles with throat cancer, acknowledged Gastrock’s big save but also made mention of Dartmouth’s controversial first goal.
Brian Van Abel scored it 6:18 into the game off a blocked shot from Mike Murray, chipping the puck into an open net as Joe Exter was out of position. The Merrimack contingent felt that the netminder was a victim of interference, but referee Scott Hansen ruled that a Dartmouth player was unintentionally pushed into Exter.
“The first goal is what killed us,” said Doneghey, whose team has yet to win two in a row. “We saw that the Dartmouth guy was checked, but he made no effort to get out of the way. And that cost us.”
Dartmouth escaped from the opening 20 with a 2-1 lead.
Speedy rookie Matt Foy knotted the score at one after Van Abel’s goal with a great individual effort, forcing a defenseman to fall before dishing the puck between Gastrock’s legs for his third goal of the year.
The tie didn’t stand up for long, as Chris Baldwin netted his fourth of the year. From the right circle, Baldwin chipped the puck toward the net. He may have been looking for center Frank Nardella, but the puck bounced past Nardella and a screened Exter (29 saves) for a 2-1 Dartmouth lead.
The Big Green upped its lead to 3-1 at the 4:16 mark of the second, as Murray was virtually undefended as he cradled the puck along the right boards before skating in and backhanding it past a fooled Exter, spelling the eventual game-winner. Van Abel had an assist on the play, giving him as many points in this game as he had all of last season.
“Sometimes you just get the bounces and things start going your way,” Van Abel said. “The whole team worked hard.”
Dartmouth seemed to dominate possession for much of the second stanza, but a defensive breakdown allowed the Warriors to pull within one once again, as junior Alex Sikatchev fired in his ninth of the year on a power play at the 14:23 mark.
The Warriors had their share of chances in the third period, outshooting the Big Green 11-5 and earning two chances on the power play, but they came up short.
Their best chance was on the late draw after pulling their goalie. Merrimack won the faceoff and executed its plan to perfection, but Gastrock passed the final test.
“We drew it up on the boards for Anthony [Aquino] to walk off the wall on the faceoff and hit Greg [Lauze] with a one-timer,” Doneghey said. “The goalie made a great save.”
Dartmouth’s new-look lineup was a breath of fresh air for a team that was struggling after beginning the season 4-1-1.
Forwards Nathan Szymanski and Joe Gaul both made their collegiate debuts, joining right winger Chris Snizek to form an all-freshman line, while sophomore Mike Wheelihan made just his second career appearance and senior Gary Hunter made his debut as a defenseman after spending much of his tenure as a forward.
“I thought the freshman line created some energy and I thought Gary Hunter played a solid game,” Gaudet said. “And Darren played a super game in goal. He was very under control.”
After a 12-day break for the holidays, these teams will face each other again in the first round of the Sheraton/Howard Bank Classic, held Dec. 28-29 at the University of Vermont’s Gutterson Field House.