NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Call it puck luck or simply the killer instinct that separates the nation’s No. 1 team from those that are chasing it.
Either way, Maine used that secret ingredient to defeat Merrimack, 2-1, and finish with three out of four points on the weekend. For the first time all year, Merrimack outshot an opponent, in this case 36-27, but had no answer for Jimmy Howard, who is arguably staking a claim as the top goalie in Hockey East, if not beyond.
Howard stopped 35-of-36 shots including all but one of 29 shots over the final 40 minutes as Merrimack carried play in the second period and often in the third.
“Honestly, we feel that we stole three out of four points,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “It’s a good feeling to know that we found a way to grab those points, but we feel fortunate, quite honestly, that we did get them because they’re a good hockey team.
“I am thoroughly impressed with Merrimack’s team. Thoroughly. They compete hard, they don’t take unnecessary penalties, they never give up and they’re just a very good hockey team. I’m very impressed with how they’re coached and how they play. We certainly don’t want to see them in the playoffs, that’s for sure.”
With the win, Maine (19-2-3, 9-1-2 HEA) leapfrogs over New Hampshire (15-4-3, 9-2-1) into second place in Hockey East, one point behind Boston College (14-5-3, 10-3-1) while holding two games in hand. Next week Maine hosts Massachusetts-Lowell for two games.
Merrimack (8-10-4, 5-7-2), on the other hand, remains in sixth place, one point ahead of Providence, but could be bypassed next weekend since the Warriors play nonconference games against Holy Cross and Brown.
“I’m at a loss for answers,” said Merrimack coach Chris Serino. “What do I tell my guys? They played their [butts] off and lost the game.
“There’s nothing I could say to them. They played as hard as they could play. They competed. They did what they had to do. They just couldn’t put one in.”
Maine came out flying in the first period, dominating the opening 10 minutes. Merrimack goaltender Joe Exter, however, came up big as has been his wont this season while the Warrior penalty killers also saved the day during a 1:22 five-on-three disadvantage.
Unfortunately for Merrimack, its first power play turned disastrous when Martin Kariya picked off a pass and broke two-on-one with Lucas Lawson. Kariya drew the defender to himself and then fed Lawson, who put his shot over Exter’s stick.
A much different Merrimack squad emerged from the locker room in the second period. Having been outshot, 12-7, in the opening 20 minutes, the Warriors territorially dominated the second, claiming the first nine shots of the period and holding Maine without one until the 10:47 mark. Despite seizing a 14-4 shot advantage, however, they could not convert that into a goal thanks to the solid goaltending of Jimmy Howard.
Merrimack finally got one past Howard in the third period at 6:58. Tim Reidy, who had clanged a shot off the crossbar and post three minutes earlier, fed Ryan Cordeiro on the far post and the senior buried it.
Two minutes later, Howard was again required to come up big, making a pad save on Marco Rosa after he broke in alone on the right wing.
Back at the other end, Robert Liscak and Chris Heisten then combined to get the game-winner at 11:07. Liscak fed Heisten in front and after his shot was stopped by Exter, Liscak drove the rebound into the net.
Merrimack went on the power play with 1:52 remaining and pulled Exter exactly one minute later to go six-on-four, but could not solve Howard. In those final 52 seconds, the netminder stopped five Merrimack shots.