NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Late-season wins for Merrimack coach Chris Serino haven’t always been easy to come by, which might explain why Saturday night’s 3-1 win over Brown was significant.
But the time of year probably wasn’t too much on Serino’s mind throughout the wide-open, fast-paced game.
“Thank God we won,” said Serino, half-laughingly, “because we were talking about tradition and I promised we’d carry that on tonight.”
That was part of a pregame speech given not only Serino’s squad, but also to 70 alumni allowed into the locker room before the game, each on hand for the annual Merrimack alumni hockey game played Saturday afternoon.
But focusing on the season at hand, Merrimack’s win Saturday did hold a good deal of significance. The win propelled the Warriors’ record to 10-10-4 on the season, marking the first time that a Merrimack team has been .500 since 1991-92 (12-12-0 on Jan. 25).
“It means a lot to us. Our goal was to get to .500 going down the stretch,” said Serino. “We wanted to get two wins this weekend (Merrimack beat Holy Cross on Friday night) to maybe put us back into the [NCAA] playoff picture.”
The weekend home sweep of Holy Cross and Brown came one weekend after the Warriors took only one of four points from No. 1 Maine despite outplaying the Black Bears. After surviving a scare against Holy Cross on Friday night, Merrimack was worried a bit about a letdown on Saturday.
“Our team’s been known to play the tough teams really well and then come and play teams like Holy Cross or Brown and not play very hard,” said junior Marco Rosa whose third-period power-play goal turned out to be the game-winner. “We wanted to prove to people that we belong in the national picture, and we knew these two games would be huge this weekend to prove that we belong.”
The game featured a quick pace, with solid transition hockey capped by good offensive chances for both clubs. The bonus came in the final line of defense as both goaltenders — Merrimack’s Joe Exter (36 saves) and Brown’s Yann Danis (27 saves) — gave fans their money’s worth in net.
“We’d heard a lot about [Exter],” said Brown coach Roger Grillo. “We’re pretty happy with [Danis] ourselves, so we knew that we’d see good goaltending.”
And on a night when goaltending was certainly strong, Exter’s second period was the difference in the game. After seeing just seven shots in a sound defensive first period for the Warriors, Exter saved 19 of 20 in the second when play both ways became decidedly more open.
The game began with a well-played, but solid checking, first period. Neither team saw much of a territorial advantage and Brown’s Chris Legg had the best scoring chance when he broke in alone on Exter. After making a nifty move that opened Exter’s legs, he attempted to slide the puck between but the senior goaltender and reigning Hockey East Player and Goaltender of the Month quickly closed the five hole to keep the game scoreless.
Merrimack finally got on the board in the second. As a penalty was expiring to Brown’s Gerry Burke for interference, a deflected centering pass ended up finding Matt Johnson backdoor on Danis. He slammed the puck into the empty net for his eighth goal of the year at 3:03.
Brown would respond a little more than 10 minutes later when Jason Wilson was hit with a pass in full stride blasting through the neutral zone. Wilson walked across the blue line and rifled a shot five-hole on Exter to even the game entering the third.
Merrimack began the third period on the power play thanks to a late penalty to Brown’s Adam Tichauer for holding, and just 80 seconds into the frame took full advantage. Rosa was the beneficiary of a perfect pass from the right corner off the stick of Alex Sikatchev, a puck that Rosa one-timed past Danis for what turned out to the be the game winner.
Said Rosa: “It was a perfect pass as I was driving to the net. I did what I’m supposed to do [shoot the puck] and luckily it went between the goalie’s legs as he was sliding over.”
Just 1:22 later, the Warriors added some insurance on another Sikatchev perfect pass. This time his two-on-one feed to Lucas Smith was finished off when Smith redirected the puck with just one hand on his stick for his third goal of the season.
From that point, the game was handed over to the Merrimack defense, which shut down the Bears, allowing just 10 shots in the final period, none threatening.
With the win, Merrimack enters the home stretch — a slate of 10 remaining league games — on a winning note. The Warriors sit in seventh place, one point behind Providence, a 5-3 loser to Boston College on Saturday, and four points behind Massachusetts and Boston University, both of which also lost on Saturday and remain tied for fourth.
Brown will host crosstown rival Providence on Tuesday night in the annual Mayor’s Cup game, the Bears’ final nonleague game of the season.