NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Union defenseman Randy Dagenais blasted a shot off goalie Joe Exter’s glove with 51 seconds left in regulation to complete a three-goal comeback, salvage a 4-4 overtime tie and taint an otherwise solid season opener for Merrimack in front of 1,056 at the Volpe Center.
Dagenais wasted no time getting off his shot from the middle of the blue line on a crossing pass from Jordan Webb, who was the beneficiary of a clean draw back to the point by center Kris Goodjohn as the Dutchmen (0-1-1) skated with the extra attacker.
“We had a face off down there just before that I got a good shot off on that (Exter) saved,” said an elated Dagenais. “I just kept putting them on the ice off of great draws from Kris Goodjohn and got lucky. I hope it happens like that all the time.”
Exter said the wall of players in front of him prevented the Merrimack captain from making what would have been his 38th save of the night.
“I didn’t see it but got a piece of it at the end,” said Exter. “It hit off my glove and trickled in. But I just didn’t see it. It was just one of those nights that if I had seen it I would have had it.”
“In a situation like that, we should pulled out the victory,” he added. “But all six guys on the ice at the end, including myself, didn’t come through with the big plays. But the difference is we’re going to learn from it, and that’s our one goal from today.”
Failing to pull out the win took a bit of the luster off of a memorable collegiate debut for Merrimack freshman forward Nick Pomponio, who scored the first two goals of his career in the first period as the Warriors built a 3-0 just 11:27 into the game.
“I was surprised because I didn’t see it go in,” said Pomponio, who scored on his second shift of the career at the 6:43 mark on a slap shot that beat Union goalie Marc Wise to the far post. “Then after the second one I just tried to keep going. But for the team, I wish we would have won.”
Following a discouraging 5-2 loss at Providence a night earlier, Dagenais said last night’s comeback was just what the Dutchmen needed.
“Sometimes a tie feels like a win, and that one definitely does,” the senior said.
Just 30 seconds after Pomponio opened the scoring, Merrimack junior Tim Reidy surprised Wise on a fantastic individual rush with Dutchmen defenseman Brent Booth draped over his back. The Warriors junior beat the 6-foot-6 netminder, who was playing his first game in two years after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury, to the top left corner with a quick wrist shot.
Pomponio scored his second of the night between the pads of Wise on a bang-bang pass from behind the net by fellow freshman Matt Johnson with 8:33 left in the first. Less than four minutes later, A.J. Palkovich sent the visitors into the first intermission trailing just 3-1, snapping off a shot from 30 feet out that caught Exter leaning in anticipation of a centering pass.
Union sophomore Joel Beal’s power-play goal 12:26 into the second period made it a one-goal game until Merrimack freshman Bryan Schmidt fired a shot off a Dutchmen defender out front with just 23 second left in the period, increasing the Warriors lead back to two at 4-2.
Sophomore Marc Neron cut into Merrimack’s cushion once more less than three minutes into the third period again on the man advantage. Union’s 5-foot-7 spark plug lifted a shot just under the cross bar over a sliding Exter off a nice pass from behind the net by Chris Di Stefano. The Dutchmen pressed for the tying goal the rest of the way, holding a decisive 17-5 shot edge in the period, until Dagenais delivered.
“I don’t think you’ll see this team ever quit,” said Union coach Kevin Sneddon. “They really showed a lot of character tonight to pull off a tough comeback like that after spotting a team a field-goal lead. We just kept chipping away.”
Merrimack owned the better of the scoring opportunities during the five-minute overtime, but by that time the rust Wise showed in the first period was gone. Especially on Merrimack freshman Brent Gough’s point-blank shot from the slot with just 18 second left in the extra frame.
“I don’t know if it was rust or nerves, but it was something in the first period,” Wise said. “But the boys came in and bailed me out. If there was ever a tie you deserved, it was that one for the way they played in front of me.”
Exter was by far the busier of the two goaltenders last night, being forced to make 17 more saves than Wise, as Merrimack was outshot by the Dutchmen, 42-25.
“We stopped being aggressive in our own end (after building a 3-0 lead), that’s what really hurt us,” said Merrimack coach Chris Serino. “Not to take anything away from Union; they’re a hard-working, well coached team, but there wasn’t a ton of skill guys out there. But for them to control the puck in our end as much as they did, we just weren’t aggressive enough.”
Serino’s goaltender agreed.
“It wasn’t a letdown effort-wise, it was a letdown mentally,” Exter said. “This team’s got to realize we’ve got to play 60 minutes, and that includes every second of the game. But Union also did a good job coming back. We’re both hard-working, grind-it-out teams.”