NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Freshman Blake Stewart threw a coming-out party this weekend at the expense of Providence.
The Merrimack forward, who scored the first of his career in Friday’s tie at Schneider Arena, netted a pure goal-scorer’s backbreaker Saturday night in the waning seconds of the second period to lead the suddenly surging Warriors to an impressive 4-1 victory.
Again skating with 10 freshmen in the lineup, Merrimack (3-5-2, 2-3-1 Hockey East) earned three out of four points against a Hockey East opponent in a home-and-home series for the first time since February 2000.
No. 14 Providence (8-4-1, 3-4-1), meanwhile, is now winless in its last four games after starting the season with seven straight victories.
“We said this weekend we wanted three out of four points, and we came out with three out of four,” said Stewart, who missed the first four games of the season with a broken finger. “That’s what we needed, and that’s what we got.”
With the shoot-from-any-angle Friars threatening Merrimack’s 2-1 advantage, Stewart broke up ice on a 2-on-1 with Luke Smith thanks to a pretty touch pass along the boards from defenseman Eric Pedersen. Racing past Friars defenseman Jason Platt, Stewart closed in on goalie Nolan Schaefer from the left boards before faking a centering pass to Smith.
The deke forced Schaefer to open his pads just enough for the Roselle, Ill., native to tap a backhander in with 36 seconds left in the period, giving Merrimack back its original two-goal lead and electrifying the 1,736 inside the Volpe Center.
“I was trying to make the pass to Luke, but I just got too close to the net,” admitted Stewart, who later unselfishly assisted on sophomore Brendon Clarke’s first career goal in the third period on a 2-on-0 breakaway. “It probably would have gotten intercepted, so I just put it on my backhand and slid it through his five-hole.
“Goals in the first minutes and last minutes of periods are a big deal, so that was big for us.”
Stewart’s late goal gave the Warriors the same comfort zone that junior Tim Reidy’s power-play goal did just 21 seconds into the game after Providence freshman Torry Gajda was whistled for hooking almost immediately after the opening face off.
“The goal in the last minute of the second period was something that really, really hurt us,” said Friars coach Paul Pooley, who was forced to sit out junior Peter Zingoni with an injured wrist suffered on Friday. “It didn’t stop our motivation, but to give up a goal with 36 seconds left in the period is inexcusable.”
Merrimack senior goalie Joe Exter was again heavily relied upon, stopping 39 shots to give him 88 for the weekend. Last night, the Warrior captain was victimized by only a Devin Rask power-play goal at 8:44 of the second period, as the Merrimack penalty-kill broke down leaving two Friars out front by their lonesome.
“We certainly couldn’t have asked for any more shots this weekend,” Pooley said. “But to Joe’s credit, he played really well.”
After Reidy’s team-leading fifth goal of the season, marking the third straight game he’s scored on the power play, Merrimack increased the lead to 2-0 at 16:40 of the period. Freshman Brent Gough banged home a blind backhand pass from junior Marco Rosa in the slot that Schaefer (14 saves) didn’t stand a chance at saving.
With the Warriors carrying a 3-1 lead into the final period, Clark put the game out of reach on a soft tap-in of Stewart’s pass into the empty side of the net at the 5:18 mark as Schaefer was left to fend for himself.
“I was grateful he gave it up to me,” Clarke said, referring to Stewart’s unselfish pass. “He just slid it in the right spot and I was able to snap it in.”
Though pleased with the three-point weekend, especially following a 13-day layoff, Merrimack coach Chris Serino admits his young club is still a work in progress.
“After we made them look good with some stupid plays in the second period, we played much better in the third,” said Serino, as the Warriors prepare for their first-ever trip to Omaha, Neb., next week. “Especially after that fourth goal, we played with a lot more confidence that we had the game under control.”
The Friars will look to regroup against a pair of ECAC clubs next weekend, paying visits on both Clarkson and St. Lawrence.
“We’re not scoring. Earlier (in the season) we’re were scoring a lot more,” Pooley said, explaining the reason for his team’s 0-3-1 skid. “That puts pressure on you to press, and the result of that is you make mistakes.
“But you’ve got to play good defense when you’re not scoring, which we’re not right now. That’s a bad combination.”