NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Don’t let the score fool you. It wasn’t nearly as easy as it looks.
Merrimack came within 4:08 of becoming the first Hockey East club to lose to a team from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Friday night before unleashing its wrath on the unsuspecting visitors from Holy Cross for a 6-3 victory.
Looking sluggish and maybe a bit overconfident, the Warriors (9-10-4) found themselves trailing, 3-1, by the 1:34 mark of the third period, much to the surprise of the 1,141 inside the Volpe Center.
But after freshman Brent Gough’s hard work paid off with 8:47 left for Merrimack’s first goal since late in the first period, sophomore Brendon Clark beat Crusaders goalie Tony Quesada from along the right boards with a quick wrist shot to tie the score at 15:52 of the period.
Just 56 seconds later, though, standout freshman defenseman Bryan Schmidt managed to tip in a high shot from defensive partner Eric Pedersen through a traffic jam in front of Quesada for the eventual game winner.
Schmidt, last week’s selection for Hockey East Rookie of the Week, then scored an empty-net, power-play goal with 30 seconds left for some insurance after shorthanded Holy Cross had pulled Quesada (29 saves) for an extra attacker.
“I saw Peddie was going to shoot so I just stood there,” said Schmidt, who has scored seven goals in his last five games, including five on the power play. “The shot was about chest high, and I managed to tip it down.”
Just six seconds after the faceoff following Schmidt’s empty-netter, sophomore Steve Crusco blasted a Ryan Cordeiro cross-ice pass over the left shoulder of Quesada from 30 feet out for Merrimack’s fifth goal of the period, tying the school record for fastest consecutive goals. Former Warriors Brendan Locke and Quentin Fendelet established the mark against Maine in 1991.
Coming off arguably their best game of the season in last Saturday’s one-goal loss to the No. 1 Black Bears, the Warriors admit luck — though late in arriving — proved to be on their side against the upset-minded Crusaders.
“I think we dodged a bullet,” said Schmidt, whose scoring streak stands at six games entering Saturday night’s home contest against Brown. “We didn’t play well at all in the first, second and probably most of the third. Then we got (Gough’s) goal and got a little momentum to turn it on.”
Meanwhile, Holy Cross (10-12-0) realizes it lost out on the opportunity of posting a milestone victory for both its program and conference.
“The people on the Internet are little bit more into ‘the MAAC against the world’ stuff than the coaches of the league,” said Crusaders coach Paul Pearl. “We’re just trying to get better. We’ve only been doing this Division I thing for four years now.
“We’re getting a little better, but tonight we should have won the hockey game. We just didn’t make the saves at the end.”
Jonas Tomiuck scored his first of two goals in the game at the 4:48 mark of the opening period to give the visitors the early lead. Merrimack freshman Derek Kilduff tied it back up before the first intermission off a pretty one-handed feed from fellow classmate Nick Pomponio.
Crusaders forward Blair Bartlett accounted for the only goal of the second period on the power play, slipping a backhander past the stick of Merrimack sophomore goalie Casey Guenther (18 saves), making his home debut and first start since Nov. 30.
Tomiuck increased the Holy Cross lead to 3-1 on the first shift of the third period off a nifty, no-look pass from behind the Warriors’ net by freshman Tyler McGregor, who assisted on all three Crusader goals.
The undisciplined play continued for Merrimack until Gough broke through with a five-hole backhander between Quesada’s pads at the 11:13 mark.
“When we were down 3-1, we were trying to score two goals at once instead of just trying to get the next one,” said Warriors coach Chris Serino, who admitted sensing his club wasn’t completely focused this week. “Sometimes when you’re pressing, you end up trying to do too much instead of just taking them one at a time.
“It might have been a matter of not respecting them — which we have no reason to — as to why we make so many mental mistakes. But the bottom line is we found a way to win.”