NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Despite a 20-year gap, the curse against the boys from Bemidji, Minn., continues for Merrimack.
As the rest of his linemates changed up, Beavers junior Myles Kuharski skated alone into the offensive zone to throw a seemingly harmless shot on goal from along the right boards. The slow roller skipped along the ice, deflected off the blocker of goaltender Casey Guenther and rolled into the net for the eventual game-winner with 5:21 left in regulation, helping Bemidji State remain undefeated in its limited history against Merrimack with a 3-2 victory.
Before Saturday night, the only other time the former Division II powerhouses met came in the 1984 NCAA national championship series, in which the Beavers swept the Warriors, 6-3 and 8-1, to complete a perfect 31-0-0 season and capture their first of five titles at that level.
The opener of this weekend series may not have been as meaningful as their first, but the defeat stung just as much for the inconsistent Warriors, now without a victory in nine straight games (0-6-3).
“We have to learn to win, but we have to win in order to learn, too,” said dejected Merrimack captain Marco Rosa. “It will come in time because it’s a long season, but it’s tough right now.”
Tied 2-2 after two periods, Bemidji seemed comfortable enough with the close confines of Lawler Arena to turn up the offensive tempo in the third, keeping Merrimack hemmed in its own zone for much of the final 20 minutes. Kuharski’s goal came on his team’s 11th shot of the period, the amount the Warriors totaled through two complete periods.
“The jump we showed in the third period is what we have,” said Beavers head coach Tom Serratore, whose club was tabbed the College Hockey America preseason favorite. “We were very stagnant the first two periods, but we usually like to go up and down. There’s not a lot of space out there and these guys block a lot off faceoffs. But this is a good win for us because it’s a little bit more up and down in the West.”
Both teams traded power-play goals from their captains in the first period with Bemidji opening the scoring at 11:28.
With 19 seconds remaining on Merrimack defenseman Rob LaLonde’s tripping penalty, Beavers defenseman Bryce Methven’s wrist shot from the blueline surprised Guenther, who was partially screened by Warriors defenseman Ryan Sullivan. The puck sailed over the junior’s right shoulder for the senior’s first goal of the season.
Rosa ended his personal seven-game scoring drought 5:10 later. The senior’s fifth goal this year was set up by a pair of quick, one-time passes from Bryan Schmidt and Brent Gough, allowing Rosa to slip a backhander inside the right post just out of the reach of Bemidji goalie Grady Hunt (16 saves).
Merrimack’s only lead of the night lasted mere seconds.
New first-line winger Blake Stewart tipped in a Schmidt blast from the point just 55 seconds into the second period for his first goal in 22 games dating back to last Feb. 4. But the sophomore’s sixth career goal was equaled 18 seconds later by Bemidji forward Wade Chiodo, whose wrist shot from the left faceoff dot deflected off the shaft of Merrimack defenseman Tony Johnson’s stick and over Guenther’s right shoulder.
Both teams had would-be go-ahead goals washed out by referee Joe Andrews — one by Stewart and another by Beavers freshman Luke Erickson — before Kuharski knuckled the clincher past Guenther (24 saves).
“A lot of guys are struggling all at once, that’s what it is right now,” said Merrimack head coach Chris Serino. “Their frustration level is so high, sometimes they try to do too much, like trying to go before they have the puck.
“We were just horrible, but I don’t think it was because of a lack of effort,” he said. “Every poor decision that we can make, we’re making right now. Every bounce of the puck that can go bad goes bad for us.”
Note: Merrimack sophomore Derek Kilduff was sent to Lawrence General Hospital for X-rays of his lower back. Bemidji junior Andrew Murray checked Kilduff hard into the boards with 16:47 left in the third period.
It was the second straight week a Warriors player needed to be taken to the hospital. Sophomore forward Matt Johnson was sent to Boston University Medical Center last Saturday with a broken jaw, an injury that will sideline him the rest of the season.
Merrimack, which has been without star freshman defenseman Jeff Caron for the last two games with a knee problem, will petition the NCAA in an effort to obtain a medical redshirt for Johnson for this season.