BOSTON — Merrimack coach Chris Serino met one-on-one with every player on his roster this week. After a pair of troublesome losses, he wanted to make sure a message was delivered loud and clear.
“You play stupid, you’re going to sit,” Serino told his reeling club. “I’m not going to coach with my heart instead of my head anymore.”
Behind a career-high 35 saves from junior goalie Casey Guenther, Merrimack played its best 60 minutes of hockey this season in a 4-2 win over Northeastern Friday in front of 2,937 at Matthews Arena.
A three-goal second period allowed the Warriors to even their Hockey East record (1-1-0, 2-2-0 overall) entering Saturday’s home contest against Providence, while keeping the Huskies (0-3-1) winless.
The victory was also the first-ever in conference play for Guenther, who was immense in the third period turning aside 20 shots.
“(Saturday’s) going to be a big game for us against Providence,” said Guenther, forced to make six shorthanded saves in the game’s final two minutes as Northeastern skated with an extra attacker on the power play. “It’s two points in Hockey East we really want.”
Sophomore Nick Pomponio gave Merrimack the lead for good just 15 seconds into the middle period with a blast from the hash marks along the left boards that stunned Huskies goalie Keni Gibson and snapped a 1-1 tie.
Pomponio’s slapshot zipped over Gibson’s left shoulder for the forward’s first goal of the year. It was set up by a nifty drop pass from senior transfer Jeremy Wilson, one of three newcomers in the Warriors lineup to record his first career assist.
Pomponio, Wilson and sophomore Derek Kilduff, who sat out the entire third period with a possible concussion, set the tone of the night for Merrimack as the visitors’ starting forward line.
“They started the game because I know they’re going to break their hump every single shift,” said Serino. “I figured they’d start the game and we’d follow their lead. They might make mistakes, but it wasn’t going to be from a lack of effort.”
The Warriors cushioned their slim lead with a pair of goals less than two minutes apart. The first coming from center Steve Crusco on the power play as the junior guided in a rebound off his own chest into an open net at 12:30.
Merrimack increased its lead to 4-1 just 1:51 later when charging defenseman Rob LaLonde snapped a Jordan Black spinning drop pass through Gibson’s pads before crashing into the end boards on his back in celebration.
“What happened in that second period,” Serino said, “is we kept the puck down so low on them that they got tired and started taking penalties because they couldn’t control us down low. That’s what we wanted to do the whole time.”
Northeastern, which must wait a week before hosting UMass-Lowell in a bid to end a three-game slide, paid the price for having seven freshmen in the lineup.
“I think the second period was a learning experience,” said Huskies coach Bruce Crowder. “We took four freshmen penalties that you don’t want to see. These guys need to learn that it’s not junior hockey or prep school. We can’t take those kinds of penalties and make those kinds of mistakes.”
Senior Marco Rosa opened the scoring 4:10 into the first period with his first power-play goal thanks to a little bit of thievery. The fleet-footed Warriors captain pilfered the puck at the Northeastern blueline off the stick of an unsuspecting Steve Sanders and walked in alone on Gibson, ripping off a wrist shot from 15 feet that beat the junior high to the blocker side.
The Huskies sent the game into the first intermission tied just 4:53 later, however, on senior Eric Ortlip’s one-handed tip of a Bryan Esner centering pass from the left boards that sailed over Guenther, barely nestling under the crossbar.
Esner also set up defenseman Jon Awe’s tip-in goal with 16:47 left in regulation that cut Merrimack’s advantage in half with another centering pass. Awe was playing his first game of the season.