NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — UMass-Amherst came into tonight’s game at Merrimack just behind the Warriors in the standings, as the two teams occupy the last two spots in the league. The Warriors hoped to improve on their record and take a firm grip on a playoff spot. The Minutemen hoped to get a ‘W’ and leapfrog Merrimack into the eighth spot. Neither of those scenarios worked out as the teams skated to a 3-3 tie in front of a crowd of 1,541.
A frustrated Mike Doneghy summarized the game pretty well.
“We stunk tonight. We stunk. We didn’t respect them,” he said. “In this league, you’ve got to respect everybody. We had an opportunity tonight to keep them down and move up in the standings and we just didn’t take advantage of it.”
The first period was one characterized by mistakes. Merrimack made them and UMass didn’t. On more than a handful of occasions, Merrimack players made tape-to-tape passes to the Minuteman. Even goaltender Joe Exter seemed a bit shaky, juggling the puck on a few long Minutemen shots.
One player who wasn’t shaky in the first was UMass freshman forward Greg Mauldin. He put UMass up 1-0 with a silky smooth goal off a terrific cross-slot dish from fellow freshman Craig MacDonald on a two-on-one at 5:08 in the first. Tim Turner was also credited with an assist.
UMass controlled the first period from the drop of the puck. Just 50 seconds into the second period, UMass struck again on the power play to make the score 2-0. This time it was a slow Sean Regan shot from the point that made it through heavy traffic in front and just under Exter’s pads.
Merrimack struck next at 10:25 of the second. Ryan Kiley led the rush, faked a pass and let a strong slapper from the slot go. Merrimack goalie Mike Johnson made the save, but the puck came right out to Kiley who pounced on the rebound and threw it home to pull the Warriors within one. Greg Lauze, who should be noted for his very solid defensive play throughout the game, was credited with the lone assist.
From that point on, it was the Joe Exter show. He almost single-handedly killed off a 5-on-3 UMass advantage, flashing his right pad on one shot and making a beautiful stack save on another. Exter made stops on the doorstep on numerous occasions the rest of the way, including a couple of breakaways and no less than three shorthanded bids. To put it mildly, he was spectacular. His play seemed to put a hop in Merrimack’s step.
“If Exter doesn’t make a couple of those saves, they walk away with the game,” said Doneghy.
UMass coach Don Cahoon thought the Minutemen let the game go in the second.
“We played well in the first period,” he said. “In the second period we didn’t play very well at all. We shifted gears and they got themselves right back into it.”
Merrimack fortified its hold on the momentum on an Anthony Aquino power-play goal with just over a minute to play in the second period. Alex Sikatchev led a 2-on-1 and turned a UMass defensman just before making a nice pass to a streaking Aquino. Aquino buried it to tie the game.
At 4:02 of the third period, UMass was shorthanded. Greg Mauldin picked a Merrimack defenseman’s pocket, skated in on Exter and generated a scoring chance. Virtually all the Warrior defenders were drawn towards Mauldin, leaving Tim Turner all alone to put the rebound past a sprawling Exter. The goal gave UMass the 3-2 lead, but Merrimack, to its credit, battled back.
Nine minutes in, Merrimack appeared to score a power-play goal but it was waved off. Less than a minute later, Matt Foy got the puck at his own blue line off of an errant bounce that caused a UMass defenseman to fall down. Ryan Cordeiro fought off a UMass backchecker to create a 2-on-1 and then proceeded to drive to the net hard, allowing Foy to hit him with a pass right on top of UMass goalie Mike Johnson. Cordeiro threaded the needle and put one home to tie the game at three goals apiece. The goal would be the last of the game but the excitement wasn’t over.
With 47 seconds left in overtime, a UMass flip shot from the point was directed into the net by Jimmy Callahan for what appeared to be the game winner. The referee called it a goal and the UMass faithful cheered. The excitement was short-lived though. The linesman stepped in and, after a short conference with the other officials, ruled that the puck was directed in off of Callahan’s hand. The game ended in a 3-3 tie and nothing but a single point was gained for either team.
“I thought we played okay,” Cahoon said. “Merrimack played hard too. It was two teams playing for their lives. It’s a long way from being settled.”
The two teams face off again Saturday. This time Merrimack travels to Amherst for a 7 p.m. tilt.