NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Now that convicted Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci began his prison sentence today, Blake Stewart has taken his place on the Rhode Island most wanted list.
The Merrimack freshman continued his mastery of Providence last night in the season-series finale, scoring both the Warriors’ goals, including the game-winner 2:09 into overtime, for a thrilling come-from-behind 2-1 win at the Volpe Center.
The first two-goal performance of his career gives Stewart four in nine games — all against the Friars. It also gives Merrimack its first series victory (2-0-1) against Providence since the 1994-95 season.
“He’s done. He’s won his series for the year,” smiled Warriors coach Chris Serino, whose club climbed back to .500 in Hockey East (3-3-1, 4-6-3 overall). “Someone else has got to win another series now.”
Stewart scored a back-breaking goal against the Friars during 4-1 win last month at the Volpe Center a night after netting his first collegiate goal at Providence that briefly gave the Warriors the lead in an eventual 2-2 tie. But the 5-foot-11 red-headed assassin from Roselle, Ill., can’t explain why the men in black bring out the best in him.
“I swear my favorite color is blue,” said Stewart, who sat out the first four games with a broken finger. “But it could change to black now.”
Meanwhile, No. 15 Providence, which started the season with seven straight wins, enters its semester break dropping five of its last seven (1-5-1).
“It was one of those games that there wasn’t much generated on both sides,” said Friars coach Paul Pooley, whose club fell to 3-5-1 in Hockey East. “It was just that they made a nice play and Stewart’s killed us.”
Stewart scored the game-winner into the short-side top corner over Friars goalie Bobby Goepfert (18 saves) off a pretty feed from behind the net from sophomore Brendon Clark, who also assisted on the first goal.
“He made a nice fake that he was going behind the net and slid it behind his back out in front,” said Stewart of Clark. “I was in the right place at the right time and just buried it.”
The ironic part of Stewart’s heroics was that the left-handed shooter started the night playing the off-wing on Merrimack’s top line along side juniors Marco Rosa and Tim Reidy. Finding it difficult early to adjust to the right side, Stewart was back on the third-line left wing with Clark and senior Lucas Smith by the start of the second period.
“I play a lot better with Clark and Smith,” he said. “They know how to work in the corners and they just pop the puck out. I seem to be in the right place with them.”
Goepfert, named to the World Junior Championships Team USA squad this week, agreed with his former U.S. Hockey League opponent.
“I saw (Clark) go behind the net and he had some speed so I was playing the wrap-around,” said Goepfert, who lost for just the second time this season. “I didn’t have any idea he would pass it back. By the time I saw he didn’t have the puck, it was behind me. It was a good shot, too.
“Stewart’s hard working and going to get his points. Unfortunately, though, they’re all against us.”
Providence took its first lead of the year on the Warriors in the first period when junior Mike Robinson roofed his own rebound over a goalie Joe Exter at the 9:02 mark. Stewart tied the game 2:08 into the second on a 20-foot slapper from along the left boards that dipped under Goepfert’s blocker.
“I put my head down and shot,” Stewart said. “To be honest, I just shot it and it found a way to the back of the net.”
With the game tied, Exter played the role of hero until the overtime with 15 of his 29 saves coming in the third period. His toughest stop of the night, though, might have come just 14 seconds before Stewart’s game-winner when defenseman Brian Schmidt nearly kicked a Friars dump-in pass behind his own goalie.
“This is a huge win for us to take the season series,” said Exter, who will likely start in Saturday’s semester finale at Northeastern. “Five huge points against the team going into the season considered in the middle of the pack. It gives us a lot of confidence and shows us what we have when we work together.”