DURHAM, N.H. — Steve Saviano’s unassisted goal at 6:45 of overtime capped a furious rally by New Hampshire, as the top-ranked Wildcats came back from a 3-0 deficit to defeat Merrimack, 5-4, winning their Hockey East quarterfinal series, two games to none. The win sends New Hampshire to the Hockey East semifinals at the FleetCenter in Boston on Friday.
“I was actually going to go back around the net again, but I saw that the goalie never moved over towards me. I had a wide-open net to shoot at,” said Saviano of his game-winning goal.
The win by UNH overshadowed an outstanding job turned in by Merrimack goaltender Joe Exter. The junior out of Cranston, R.I., stopped 62 out of the 67 shots that New Hampshire threw at him, setting a new single-game Hockey East quarterfinal record. The 62 saves represented the most by a Merrimack goalie in 38 years, and came within three of tying the all-time Hockey East tournament record of 65 set by Chris Terreri of Providence in the 1985 championship game.
“It was a good play by their guy. I didn’t get over to the post in time. It was a long game. Maybe I lost my legs a bit,” said Exter.
“I thought the guys did a terrific job, the way that they came back. They never panicked.” said New Hampshire head coach Dick Umile.
New Hampshire apparently lost sight of the fact that this was the same Merrimack team that walloped a solid Maine club, 5-2, earlier in the season. The Wildcats came out flat in the first, and when they did mount any type of attack, Exter was there, particularly with his glove hand. He stoned Garrett Stafford not once, but twice, none better than at the 16:50 mark, when he stopped the junior defenseman’s shot from point-blank range with an acrobatic kick save that somehow found rubber.
“Give credit to Merrimack for coming back strong after last night [a 6-2 New Hampshire win],” said Umile.
New Hampshire improved to 27-6-3 overall. Merrimack ended their season at 11-23-2.
When Merrimack’s Alex Sikatchev scored in the opening minute of the second period to stake the Warriors to a 3-0 lead, New Hampshire forward Darren Haydar thought back to the three goals that he and his teammates had set at the beginning of the regular season. Those goals were the following: winning the Hockey East regular-season championship (accomplished), the Hockey East Tournament championship, and the national championship. With things as they were in the game at hand, he saw the second of those goals possibly slipping away.
And that’s when the Hobey Baker hopeful decided to take matters into his own hands.
The senior captain got UNH on the board at 8:47, with his 29th goal of the season to narrow the gap to 3-1 in favor of Merrimack. It was also goal No. 100 in Haydar’s career at New Hampshire. Less than two minutes later, sophomore Tim Horst scored his fourth goal of the season to narrow the gap to 3-2, Merrimack.
Haydar’s work was far from finished.
Just 30 seconds after Hort’s goal, Haydar sent home his 30th of the year off a faceoff to the right of Exter, tying the game at four. Haydar, who the night before became the number two all time leading goal scorer at UNH with his 28th goal of the year, has some work to do to catch the Wildcats’ all time leader in goals, Ralph Cox, who ended his career with 127.
“We knew it was just a matter of time before we scored. We knew if we could stop them from getting that fourth goal, we could get back in this game. Our third goal [on the power play] really helped,” said Haydar.
While New Hampshire came out sleep-walking in the first, Merrimack, on the other hand, came out firing on all cylinders from the drop of the puck. Putting some significant pressure on the Wildcats in their own zone, the Warriors forced the play.
At the four-minute mark, New Hampshire sophomore goaltender Michael Ayers was forced to make a how-to-be-a-goalie-video save, with a spectacular stacked-pad stop off of Merrimack’s Matt Foy. The Warriors were not fazed, however, and kept things going in the UNH end, and just seconds after the Ayers robbery, Ryan Kiley took a pass from junior Nick Torretti, and beat Ayers for his seventh goal of the season, to give the Warriors an improbable yet hard earned 1-0 lead. Sophomore Marco Rosa also was credited with an assist on the goal.
The Warriors seemed to play with a lot more confidence and savvy with their 1-0 lead as the period wore on, and at 13:42, former Wildcat Ryan Cordeiro found the back of the twine behind Ayers. Freshman Stephen Crusco won a faceoff back to Cordeiro to the right of Ayers. The junior blasted a shot that went underneath the catching glove of Ayers and under the crossbar for a 2-0 Merrimack lead and a stunned Whittemore Center.
In the second period, Merrimack picked up where it left off. A night earlier, the Warriors committed the cardinal sin of allowing a goal in the last minute of the second period. Tonight, however, it was Merrimack who responded in the first minute, as Alex Sikatchev scored his 13th goal of the season (second in as many nights) just 33 seconds into give the Warriors a shocking 3-0 lead.
The Wildcats, however, were energized by Haydar’s first tally, proceeding to run over anything wearing a Warriors jersey in the ensuing play leading up to Horst’s goal. And with the Whittemore Center crowd not even back in their seats yet, Haydar kept them standing just 30 seconds later. The scoreboard now read 3-3, and with momentum having shifted towards the Wildcat side of the ledger, Merrimack associate head coach Mike Doneghey quickly called timeout.
“We made a lot of mistakes and mental errors early on. We turned the puck over a lot. We cleared that up well after the first period,” said Haydar.
While in many instances timeouts tend to be mere formalities intended to give a team that’s getting blown out a breather, in this case Doneghey’s timeout call came at just the right time. Merrimack went right back out and re-established the territorial advantage that they had displayed throughout the first period and a half, and at 18:41, the Warriors regained the lead, as Sikatchev scored his second goal of the night to put Merrimack back out in front, 4-3.
The stage was set for a wild third period.
Less than a minute in, it looked as though Parillo had given Merrimack a 5-3 lead, but the goal light never came on. Later on, Exter stopped Hemingway, who was a pest all night in front, on a point-blank bid.
With New Hampshire pressing in the Merrimack end, a Warrior defender tried to move the puck out in front of Exter. A Wildcat forechecker stole the puck, resulting in a gut-wrenching sequence in which Ed Caron finally poked it home, knotting the score at four. UNH had several good chances to take the lead down the stretch, with Josh Prudden having the best chance at 8:45 on a two on one break, but Exter stood tall.
Merrimack got the chance they wanted 16:57, when Hemingway was whistled for interference. This time it was the Wildcats who held serve, as New Hampshire held the Warriors without a shot on the power play.
New Hampshire has taken no prisoners this year in terms of shots on goal, and tonight was no different. At the end of three periods, Exter had 54 saves — 19 in the third period alone.
“For the most part, this whole team has had its ups and downs all year, with coach [Chris Serino] going down and everything,” said Exter. “I just realized in the middle part of the season that it’s not life or death out there. There are more important things to worry about. But I was happy with my play down the stretch.”
The third period ended with the teams still tied at four, setting the stage for Saviano’s heroics.
“I thought it was a really good college hockey game. Good up and down action. We knew they would score. It was nice how our guys were able to regroup. Joe obviously played a hell of a game. It was one of the best games I’ve been involved with,” said Doneghey.
Haydar had a special message for the UNH fans.
“I can’t thank our fans enough for what they meant to me and out team during my four years here,” he said. We still have unfinished business, though. We still have the Hockey East championship, and national championship to go, which are two things that New Hampshire has never won.”