CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — On Feb. 15, in a 6-1 victory for Merrimack over Boston College, BC’s Andrew Alberts delivered a late-game hit to Merrimack’s then-leading scorer Marco Rosa. The hit resulted in Rosa breaking his wrist and suffering a concussion that ended his season.
The hit also set off a series of conversations and a request to Hockey East from Merrimack for supplemental discipline. But upon further review, the league deemed the hit deserving of a two-minute penalty and nothing further.
When the pairing came out for the Hockey East quarterfinals and it was noted that No. 7 Merrimack would face No. 2 BC, many suggested there might be some bad blood.
On Friday night that blood boiled over.
After a major open-ice collision between Boston College’s Patrick Eaves and Merrimack goaltender Joe Exter, a melee ensued, resulting in a game filled with 154 minutes worth of penalties, four players ejected and Exter at a Boston hospital in critical condition.
The hit came with 6:17 remaining in regulation and Boston College leading, 2-0. With a Boston College penalty about to expire, BC’s Ty Hennes lifted a high clearing pass from in front of his own net all the way down ice. With Patrick Eaves coming onto the ice as a substitute for Dave Spina — who had just served the penalty — the rookie, returning to the lineup for the first time since suffering a neck injury on Dec. 7, pursued the puck at full speed.
When Exter came out of the goal in an attempt to clear the puck, he and Eaves had a full-impact collision at the right faceoff dot. The initial view led referee Jeff Bunyon to assess a five-minute penalty for intent to injure, as well as a game disqualification.
Post-game review of the tape showed Eaves heading full speed for the puck when Exter slid under him, forcing a collision between the two players with Eaves’ left knee hitting Exter square in the right temple.
As assistant coach John McLean and head coach Chris Serino leapt onto the ice to tend to the fallen goaltender, mayhem broke out around them. Some of the Merrimack bench players broke onto the ice, coaches from both teams ended up on the ice trying to restrain players, while all three officials attempted unsuccessfully to restore order.
At the same time, Exter’s parents, Mark and Donna, along with medical personnel from Boston College rushed onto the ice. After a 25-minute delay, Exter was eventually lifted from the ice. While laying on the ice, it was reported that Exter suffered a seizure and began to hemorrhage blood from his ears. He was taken off the ice on a stretcher and immediately rushed to Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess hospital, where he was listed in critical condition with a fractured skull less than an hour after the game ended.
By the time all was said and done, 81 minutes in penalties had been whistled for the altercation and the game became almost an afterthought.
A visibly disturbed Serino was able to offer few comments after the game before rushing to the hospital to be by Exter’s side.
“I take full responsibility for everything that went on the end of the game,” said Serino. “I don’t want to say things that I really might be sorry for later.”
Boston College coach Jerry York was also cautious not to comment too deeply on the altercation except to say that he believed there was “no intent to injure” on Patrick Eaves’ part.
“The incident was a loose puck and Exter came out and dove for it and there was a collision,” said York. “We hope that [Exter] is okay. We know he was taken to the hospital but don’t know yet what’s happened there.”
Boston College went on to win the opening game of the best-of-three series, 4-1.
Though ending in complete turmoil, the game began as a quiet, almost lackluster affair through the opening 40 minutes. Boston College jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead on goals by Ryan Shannon at 16:28 and Ben Eaves at 18:58.
Leading up to the third-period melee, there had been just seven minor penalties whistled by Bunyon. But when the initial brawl was over, the Warriors were left with a major power play.
That quickly was dismissed when Merrimack coach Chris Serino called timeout before the next faceoff and blasted Bunyon, receiving a bench minor. But the four-on-four hockey didn’t immediately deter the Warriors.
Brent Gough pulled Merrimack within a goal at 14:58 when his wrister from the slot beat trickled past BC goaltender Matti Kaltiainen (12 saves).
But with Exter out of the game, replacement Casey Guenther was both cold and inexperienced. Eighteen seconds after Gough’s tally, BC’s Shannon restored the two-goal lead by pushing the first shot Guenther faced through the five-hole.
More chippiness resulted in further Merrimack penalties and power plays for Boston College. At 18:13, Alberts scored with the man advantage to account for the 4-1 final.
Exter had kept the Warriors in the game, making 29 saves. Guenther had two saves in relief.
When the two teams face each other in Saturday night’s game two, they will do so without a full complement of players. Patrick Eaves’ two game disqualifications give him three for the season, which carries an automatic five-game suspension.
BC will also be without defenseman Bill Cass, who was DQ’ed for fighting with 39 seconds remaining, and forward Stephen Gionta, who left the game with a leg injury in the second period. Merrimack will miss the services of assistant captain Lucas Smith and defenseman Cam DeYoung, each of whom received a DQ for fighting.
But most importantly, Merrimack will not have goaltender and team MVP Exter, making the rematch seem an almost insurmountable task. Entering Friday night’s game Exter posted an 11-15-6 record with a 2.93 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. He is a top candidate for Hockey East Player of the Year, having carried a Merrimack team picked to finish last in the preseason poll to a respectable 12-16-6 regular-season record.
As to the concern for further bad blood in Saturday’s second game, York noted that he will address his team in a meeting Saturday afternoon.
“We have to try to stay composed and keep our mind on playing hockey,” said York. “Poise and composure — that’s what we have to talk about. There’s not a lot more to say.”