BOSTON — Boston University had only won one of its last five games going into Thursday’s game against Merrimack.
But appearances can be deceiving: the Terriers had been playing good hockey lately, except for some bad puck luck and disciplinary lapses.
Thursday, though, the Terriers received an excellent outcome to match their effort, as the top line of Brian Collins, John Sabo, and David Vandergulik combined for two goals and four assists as BU topped Merrimack 5-0 in the Terriers’ 500th game at Walter Brown Arena.
A light crowd of 2,612 also saw Terrier sophomore Ryan Whitney get on track with a goal and an assist to earn the first star of the game, while junior netminder Sean Fields made 24 saves to earn his third career shutout against the Warriors and his fifth overall.
It could have been much worse for Merrimack if not for the goaltending heroics of senior captain Joe Exter. He made 28 saves — including a few first-period gems before Merrimack coach Chris Serino opted to give Casey Guenther some minutes halfway through the third period.
Terrier coach Jack Parker was thoroughly pleased with the Beanpot tuneup.
“That was a pretty thorough game for us from staying out of the box to taking advantage of power plays, doing a good job killing penalties, coming out of our zone really well, and most importantly getting some goals-although we missed a lot too,” Parker said. “Their goaltender played really well.”
“They really controlled play on us down low in both zones,” Serino said. “I was a little disappointed with the way we competed, but maybe they were the ones who stopped us from competing.”
Although Fields enjoyed the shutout, all parties agreed that he was the beneficiary of a dominating team performance.
“We really didn’t put a lot of pressure on him,” Serino said. “We just didn’t finish; we fumbled the puck. Even when we went in alone we didn’t really get any shots off. I think tonight he played well, but that’s a team shutout tonight — they played well around him.”
“When a goalie gets a shutout and doesn’t even get a star, you know the team did a real good job in front of him,” acknowledged Fields. “The team did their job: kept the shots to the outside, cleared rebounds, and cleared men.”
As for Whitney, he struggled mightily in the first half but has been a different player since returning from the World Junior Championships in Canada.
“I went up there and for the first time my ankle wasn’t painful to skate,” said Whitney. “I had a real good tournament, and I brought my confidence back here. I sat a game [as a healthy scratch against UNH] but that was just because I was pressing too much, and I feel real good out there now.”
“Ryan’s been playing unbelievable,” said Fields. “First star tonight, and I think he’s really starting to get his confidence back. He’s making really good plays, passes up the middle, sending guys in on breakaways — he’s getting back to his old form, and it’s real good to see.”
“There’s no question that his physical problems had a lot to do with his problems on the ice,” Parker said about the sophomore defenseman, taken fifth overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2002 NHL draft. “And that was compounded because he was trying to live up to the expectations of what everybody thought he was supposed to be doing for us. And he couldn’t do it, and that made it worse. He started to get down on himself and down on his situation. It’s nice to see him going the way we want to be going — he’s going to be a real factor for us down the stretch.”
It was a wire-to-wire performance for the Terriers. Just three minutes into the game, they took the lead when David VanderGulik’s 15-footer was redirected by Gregg Johnson toward Exter, who made the initial save, only to have Sabo flip the rebound up, over, and in.
Exter denied Kenny Magowan with a terrific save on an uncontested shot off a two-on-one at 4:50, but BU scored again at 7:28. Sabo picked up the puck just inside the blue line and raced in on the left wing before backhanding a pass to Brian Collins crashing the far side of the net. Exter sprawled and came up with the big save, but Whitney was trailing the play and easily buried the rebound.
Curiously, the Terriers dominated the early play except when they were on the power play, and five-on-five Exter held the fort through the middle of the second period. He made excellent saves on Magowan and Freddy Meyer in the middle stanza’s opening minutes, but the Terriers made it 3-0 at 11:31.
Whitney threaded a blue-line-to-blue line pass to Magowan, who broke in alone and started to go to his backhanded before pulling the puck back in to beat Exter low stick-side with a forehand shot.
“It was kind of a broken play in the neutral zone, and luckily the puck came to me,” Whitney said. “I saw Magowan caught up at the blue line, and it was just good timing. He did a good job finishing it.”
Not much else happened until the third period, when Gregg Johnson looked strong in the early going coming off several games as a healthy scratch. Then, at 6:32, BU got another one when Redlihs crossed the puck from the left point to David Klema low on the right-wing faceoff circle. It wasn’t the best angle, but the centerman banged it off Exter and in to give BU the four-goal cushion.
The Terriers finally got the power play going for their last tally, when Bryan Miller’s slapshot rebounded into the crease, where VanderGulik poked at it before Collins chipped it over the fallen goalie and in.
The Terriers (15-10-2, 9-8-0 Hockey East) next face Harvard in first-round action in the Beanpot, playing in the 5 p.m. game. Merrimack (10-11-4, 5-8-2) hosts UMass-Lowell on Tuesday night.