CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — With Merrimack goaltender Joe Exter still battling a major head injury sustained in Friday’s opener, few minds Saturday night were on the rematch between Merrimack and Boston College in game two of the Hockey East quarterfinals.
That, though, didn’t translate onto the ice, as both teams treated the 2,513 in attendance to an entertaining game high in great plays and sportsmanship. Boston College’s J.D. Forrest netted a late game-winning goal as Boston College advanced to the Hockey East semifinals with a 2-1 victory.
Though, admittedly, the game was an afterthought to most of the Merrimack players, head coach Chris Serino said that in 30 years of coaching “he’s never been more proud of a team.”
That statement came just hours after he staked his reputation on a promise that Saturday’s rematch would be clean of the fisticuffs that marred the closing minutes of Friday’s game.
Boston College head coach Jerry York also expressed happiness that Saturday’s game was a clean, hard-fought battle.
“Both teams deserve a lot of credit, it was a very emotional type of atmosphere,” said York. “I’m proud of my guys but I’m also proud of Merrimack and I’m proud for Hockey East that we were able to [play a clean game] tonight.”
The on-ice highlight was the play of Merrimack’s Casey Guenther (27 saves). Making only his third career start, the sophomore played an incredible, fundamentally sound though emotionally-driven game in net. Called upon time and time again to make big saves, Guenther stood strong.
“I thought [Casey] did a fantastic job, but it doesn’t surprise me,” said Serino. “If it wasn’t for the fact that Joe [Exter] was playing so well, we probably would have played him more throughout the year.”
On the other side, Boston College’s Matti Kaltiainen (17 saves) may not have faced as many shots but saw a lot of high-quality Merrimack shots from a charged offense.
The game began with a much higher energy level than Friday’s opener, with both teams finding early scoring chances. Merrimack capitalized first when Brent Gough buried a loose rebound after a Merrimack flurry at 7:04.
But similar to Friday night, BC would answer Merrimack’s only goal almost immediately. Justin Dziama found himself alone in the slot as Guenther pushed a rebound of an Anthony D’Arpino blast out front, Dziama needed only to tap the loose puck into the open net to answer the Merrimack tally just 21 seconds later.
From that point, though, goaltending and defense took over the game. Both teams were afforded plenty of scoring chances, but either rebounds weren’t available or the goaltenders made strong follow-up saves.
As the game seemed destined for overtime, though, BC’s Forrest put lights out on the Merrimack season, netting a blast from the point with 18.3 seconds remaining in regulation.
“We had been told all week to look for the middle point,” said Forrest. “[Tony] Voce kept the puck in at the weak side and got it across to me at the middle. The puck was just laying there and I shot it.
“It looked like it got [the defenseman] in the thigh and the goalie wasn’t expecting that, and it beat him short side.”
The goal sent the building into pandemonium and moved Boston College one step closer to the Hockey East championship. The next step, though, for the Eagles will be a semifinal matchup with Boston University, a 7-1 winner over Providence on Saturday. It will be the fifth meeting between the two clubs this year, with BC holding a 3-1 advantage.
The last meeting between the two clubs was in the Beanpot semifinals at the FleetCenter when BU walked away with a 3-2 victory en route to its 25th Beanpot.
“It’s FleetCenter Part II,” said York of his next opponent. “Any time we get to the Fleet, our campus is very excited about it. And any time we get to play our rival that’s very special.”
For Merrimack, the Warriors end the season with a 12-17-6 record and can now turn their attention to the health and well-being of Exter, whose condition was upgraded from critical to serious condition for the second time Saturday night with the news coming late in the third period.
York addressed the Exter situation, noting that he and Patrick Eaves attempted to visit the fallen goaltender Saturday at the hospital, but was only able to see Exter’s parents, Mark and Donna.
“It’s a tough time that [Merrimack and the families] are going through,” said York, “but so are we. He’s one of us. He’s a Hockey East guy. He’s a four-year veteran. So we’re all very conscious of the seriousness of the situation.”
When asked to put the past 24 hours into perspective, Serino used one word.
“Horrible,” said Serino. “It’s been a horrible experience for us. It’s been emotionally draining for us, for our team, for a lot of us. It’s been tough but that’s what life’s about, ups and downs.”