BOSTON — Want proof of the difference a year makes?
Last season, Merrimack College gave up an inconceivable seven short-handed goals and finished the year 0-6-0 when scoring just once. The end result was a dismal 11-23-2 campaign and eight-place finish in Hockey East.
But Saturday night, Merrimack goalie Joe Exter made what turned out to be the save of the night on Huskies forward Mike Morris’ short-handed bid late in the first period, allowing for teammate Brendon Clark’s second-period goal to stand up.
The end result this time around was a back-and-forth 1-0 victory for the now fifth-place Warriors before 1,576 at Matthews Arena.
Outstanding goaltending and production from your third line are the undisputed ingredients to winning hockey. And Merrimack is getting just that in abundance.
“Joey’s just got all parts of his game going for him right now,” said Warriors head coach Chris Serino. “I think he’s playing as well as any goalie in the country right now.
“And that (third) line is playing so well. I thought (senior center) Luke Smith played probably his best game at Merrimack. I can’t ask for any more out of them.”
Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder, whose club saw its three-game out-of-conference winning streak snapped, couldn’t agree more.
“Exter’s playing extremely well for them and Merrimack’s getting scoring out of the third line,” said Crowder, after his club fell to 1-6-1 in Hockey East. “It’s a tough, tough league. The bottom line is 1) you’ve got to make your opportunities, and 2) you’ve got to make the most of your opportunities. They did that and we didn’t.”
The victory sends the Warriors into the semester break over the .500 mark in league play (4-3-1) for the first time since starting out 4-3-0 during the 1990-91 season, their second in Hockey East. Official records, however, show Merrimack owning the same 4-3-1 mark before Christmas in 1993-94 when Maine was forced to forfeit two wins to the Warriors after the season for recruiting violations.
Following a scoreless first period Saturday night thanks to Exter’s stand-up, pad save on Morris’ bid, Smith threaded a perfect pass on a rare 2-on-1 break across the Northeastern crease, avoiding the stick of Huskies defenseman Bryan Nathe and hitting Clark’s stick in the middle of the tape. All the sophomore needed to do is give the puck a little push behind goalie Keni Gibson (19 saves) for his third goal at 5:57 of the second period.
“It was a great look by Luke, something that usually works only in practice,” said Clark, who assisted on both of linemate Blake Stewart’s goals in Thursday’s 2-1 overtime win against Providence. “It usually doesn’t just land on your stick in a game like that. It was just a great pass and felt good to put it home.”
The shutout was the first for Exter this season and fourth of his career. The senior evened his personal record at 5-5-3 behind 26 saves and hasn’t allowed a goal in 114 minutes. But he’s forced to wait until Dec. 28 against RPI at the Engineers’ holiday tournament for a chance to extend his streak.
“I’m just proud of this team and what we’ve been doing so far,” the Warriors captain said. “It’s our responsibility to keep it going. It’s tough to take three weeks off in any season, especially now. But we’ll just have to continue to work hard.”
In the third period, Exter received some timely help from Eric Pedersen with 10 minutes left in regulation when the defenseman swept a bouncing puck out of the open crease with Northeastern’s Eric Ortlip just about to tap it into the open net for the equalizer.
“Little things make a huge difference,” Serino said. “By the end of the game, nobody logged more ice time than Eric Pedersen and (defenseman) Bryan Schmidt. At the end of the game, a loose puck and the first guy on it like a rocket is Pedersen. It shows me heart, which is what we’re about.”
Meanwhile, some of the Matthew Arena “Doghouse” faithful let Crowder know they’re too pleased with another slow start to the season with chants of “Bruce must go!” while the teams shook hands.
“You can’ make excuses in any regard,” the seven-year coach said. “Basically it was a goalkeepers duel like a pitchers duel. It boiled down to we missed an assignment on a backcheck and they finished. No complaints about how we played, we just didn’t finish.”