DURHAM, N.H. — Sophomore Sean Collins scored on a breakaway midway through the third period to break a 3-3 deadlock and lift No. 1 New Hampshire over feisty Merrimack, 4-3, in front of a sellout crowd at the Whittemore Center.
With the victory, New Hampshire (3-0-2) extended its unbeaten streak to 23-0-3 against Merrimack (1-3-1) since 1996. However, it didn’t come without a fight from the Warriors, who held the lead with just over fifteen minutes to play in the third period.
Senior Lanny Gare recorded the 100th point of his UNH career when he assisted on fellow senior Josh Prudden’s game-tying goal in the third period. Junior Tim Horst had a career high three-point night as well for the Wildcats, scoring a goal and adding two assists. Freshman forward Nick Pomponio had a goal and an assist to lead Merrimack, while senior Alex Sikatchev set up two goals.
“It was a back and forth game. I just told the team that I wasn’t surprised; this is how it’s going to be in Hockey East this year,” said New Hampshire head coach Dick Umile. “We stayed composed, and found a way to win. We got tonight what I expected in terms of the game.”
Merrimack head coach Chris Serino was less than thrilled about the outcome.
“Don’t even ask me about the game. I ain’t happy,” said the fifth year coach of the Warriors. “We didn’t come here to be close. Yes, I thought that we played pretty well, but I’m not happy and neither are the players.”
This particular Warrior team looked completely different from last year’s squad, which got swept by the Wildcats here at the Whittemore Center in the Hockey East quarterfinals. And when UNH goaltender Mike Ayers had to flash the leather and make a big glove save off of Hockey East Rookie of the Week Brent Gough just 45 seconds into the contest, you just had a feeling things weren’t going to come easily for the Wildcats on this night.
“To be honest, I had forgotten about it, until you guys just told me,” said Serino in reference to New Hampshire’s apparent hex over the Warriors since Serino left his position alongside Umile as an assistant coach to take the reins at Merrimack in 1998. “We didn’t prepare any differently; we knew we were playing a good hockey team. I was more worried about their power play than anything else.”
UNH, which entered the contest with the best power play percentage in the country (38.9%), went 0-5 on the night with the man advantage. Merrimack went 0-1 and has yet to score this season with the extra skater (0-22).
In the first period, contrary to previous meetings between these two teams, New Hampshire had trouble getting anything going offensively, and it was the Warriors who had the jump in their skates. At the 8:36 mark, Merrimack found itself in a highly improbable situation: a 7-2 lead in shots and a 1-0 lead, courtesy of sophomore Cam DeYoung’s first career goal off a slap shot from the left circle.
UNH answered less than two minutes later, however. After some pretty stickhandling near the left face off circle, Jim Abbott waited patiently and found a wide-open Horst, who sent the pass over the outstretched pad of Merrimack goaltender Joe Exter, tying the game at 1-1.
“It feels great. A couple of lucky bounces went my way. I’m happy about it,” said Horst.
The Wildcats took their first lead of the night early in the second period, but it wasn’t a pretty goal. Horst took a pass from Pat Foley across the Merrimack blue line and fired on net. The puck glanced off Preston Callander and wound up behind Exter, giving the Wildcats a 2-1 lead. It was Callander’s first goal of the season.
Serino had to like his team’s chances going into the third period down only a goal to the top ranked team in the country on their home ice. And when Pomponio stuffed a centering pass from Tim Reidy past Ayers just 1:10 into the third to tie the game at 2-2, it started to look like it might just be the night that the Warriors broke the spell that UNH had cast over them for so long.
“We came out flat in the third period. You can’t do that in Hockey East,” said Horst.
Things really started looking good for Merrimack just three minutes later, when the Warriors capitalized on yet another odd man rush into the UNH zone. Sikatchev’s slap shot was initially saved by Ayers, but defenseman Tony Johnson stepped up into the play and banged in the rebound, and suddenly it was Merrimack with the lead, 3-2. You could hear a pin drop in the Whittemore Center.
And yet just when it looked like it was going to be Merrimack’s night, fate struck the Warriors like a dagger once again.
Josh Prudden sent what appeared to be a pass from the right circle to the front of the net, but the puck glanced off a stunned Exter and into the net. And with it, Merrimack’s lead was gone.
“They got a break on that third goal. That was the turning point of the game,” said Serino.
At that point, Merrimack would have probably been happy to escape the Whittemore Center House of Horrors with a point, but Collins would have none of it.
UNH freshman defenseman Brian Yandle, playing in his first collegiate game, did a nice job of stealing the puck from a Merrimack defender and getting it to Horst, who then fed junior Steve Saviano. The former Reading (Mass.) standout then sent a nifty rink wide pass to his former high school teammate Collins, who raced in alone and beat Exter for the game-winning goal.
“It was a good play by Yandle, taking the puck away from their guy. Saviano put a sweet pass on my stick, as usual,” said Collins of the goal.
Just when it seemed so close, the result remained the same: another long bus ride back to North Andover for the Warriors.
“They capitalized on some mistakes. That’s what good teams do,” said Serino.
Merrimack returns to action on Sunday when the Warriors host Dartmouth at 7 p.m.
New Hampshire, meanwhile, has a showdown with No. 7 Boston University on Saturday at the Whittemore Center. Game time is 7 p.m.