TROY, N.Y. — HED: Warriors seek first-ever tourney title
SUBHED: Clark nets second straight game-winner
By Kevin Conway
Merrimack started the second half of the season right where it left off the first.
Red-hot sophomore Brendon Clark scored his second straight game-winner, while senior Joe Exter turned in another outstanding night in goal, as the Warriors advanced to the championship game of the 52nd Rensselaer/HBSC Holiday Tournament Saturday with a 2-1 victory over the host squad.
The win is the third straight for Merrimack and sets up its first-ever meeting with Wayne State from the College Hockey America conference in Sunday’s final (7 p.m., WCCM 1490 AM) at the Houston Field House. It also evens the Warriors’ overall record at 6-6-3, the latest they’ve been .500 in a season in two years.
“It’s been a long road for us,” said Merrimack head coach Chris Serino. “We’ve been playing pretty good and finally get back to the .500 mark. Now we’d like to go over it at this tournament. They deserve to go over it.”
The Warriors will be seeking their first tournament title ever since the program moved up to Division I in 1987. Wayne State (6-10-0) — which also owns the Warriors nickname — advanced by ending a four-game losing streak Saturday with a 7-0 matinee pounding of Princeton.
“This whole year we’ve been talking about leaving a mark as a senior class,” said Exter, who had his 157:05 shutout streak snapped in the third period on a tying goal by RPI defenseman Scott Basiuk. “We want to build a foundation and that’s a hell of a way to do it right there, be the first class to win a tournament. So winning it’s very important to us, and we plan to do whatever it takes to do it.”
RPI coach Dan Fridgen, whose club misses out on defending its tourney title, believed his team deserved a better fate.
“I didn’t think they beat us on their merit; I thought we had a hand in that as well,” he said. “But their goalie played real solid and you’ve got to take care of things better in your own end.”
Merrimack may have been headed to the consolation game if it wasn’t for Clark continuing his recent knack for being involved in big goals.
With the score tied 1-1 following Basiuk’s second of the season and RPI turning up the pressure, Clark tipped in a cross-ice pass from defenseman Rob LaLonde that managed to slip through the pads of Engineers goalie Kevin Kurk (20 saves) with 7:36 left in regulation.
“I had my back turned and wasn’t facing the net,” said Clark, who has twice scored the winning goal and assisted on the other in Merrimack’s current win streak. “I kind of curled my stick, pulled it in and was just trying to get a piece of it.”
The third-line center, Clark, a recent runner-up for the U.S. College Hockey Online Player of the Week, has now posted four goals and two assists in the last six games.
“It’s just more of me getting more comfortable and getting more chances now,” said Clark, whose first career goal started his hot streak. “We’re rolling three lines and things get flowing. They eventually had to go in.”
Merrimack opened the scoring just 2:41 into the first period on the power play. Junior Tim Reidy collected a Marco Rosa pass behind the RPI net, deked going left then wrapped around to the right before slipping the puck between the post and Kurk’s right pad for his team-leading sixth goal.
Following a scoreless middle period, Basiuk scored on a blast off a draw from 35 feet out that broke off Exter’s blocker 3:58 into the third. The Engineers were buzzing in the Merrimack zone for the next several minutes but unable to take advantage thanks to some opportune play from a defensive corps that was without freshman sensation Bryan Schmidt, who is nursing a knee injury this weekend.
“Once he got hurt, other guys on defense had to step up,” Serino said. “And tonight they definitely did. I thought we played our best hockey on defense the last six minutes after we took back the lead.”