PRINCETON, N.J. — After a tough start to the season, Merrimack headed into a three-week break with an impressive 7-2 win over New Hampshire. Not wanting to lose whatever edged the Warriors gained from that big win, there was no better opponent than struggling Princeton this weekend.
Merrimack (7-10-3) completed a two-game road sweep of the Tigers on Saturday with a 3-0 win, holding Princeton to just 11 shots and getting the first career shutout from goaltender Jim Healey. The freshman raised his save percentage to .911 in six appearances, and improved his record to 2-2.
“It’s a great feeling. I wasn’t expecting to play a whole lot this year, but any time I get in the net, I try to do my best,” said Healey. “And it was really nice to get it over the break, and hopefully I can build on that now for the future.”
Steve Crusco, who kicked his season into gear with a two-goal effort against UNH on Dec. 13, added two more for Merrimack, both in the first period, his sixth and seventh of the season. Linemate Tim Reidy assisted on both those goals, and the other Merrimack score as well.
“I felt that Crusco and Reidy had to play a little better for us, and since a couple games before UNH, they started to play well,” said Merrimack coach Chris Serino. “They’re good goal scorers, and we expected them to get 10-15 this year. And their play over the last month has improved, and as a result, we’ve improved.”
After taking the 2-0 lead, the Warriors staved off seven Princeton power plays, including five in the second period. Princeton had just three shots in the second despite all those power-play opportunities. Matt Byrnes’ goal late in the third sealed the victory.
“I don’t think we played really great defensively,” said Serino. “I think we played good offensively and kept the puck in their end, which helped us defensively. We were a little shabby defensively, but that’s probably from the layoff. Overall I was pretty pleased.
“I thought [Princeton] competed real hard tonight. I don’t think they competed like that [Friday] night, I thought we out-competed them. But I thought it was pretty even tonight.”
Despite just three shots allowed by the Warriors in the third period, all were tough chances off a flurry, and letting one by would have made it a one-goal game.
“First two periods, I didn’t see a whole lot of rubber,” said Healey. “I just tried to stay focused, and whenever the puck came down just try to get in the zone. I tried to play the puck a little bit just to keep myself moving. Those last few shots came in a flurry, so it was nice that I was still sharp and able to make those saves.”
Princeton goaltender Eric Leroux struggled early, as the Tigers came out looking just as lackluster as they had in Friday’s 5-1 defeat. After Crusco put one through the legs of Leroux at 4:04 of the first, he added another just over three minutes later. Instead of covering up an initial shot that Leroux stopped, he tried to swat the puck away, but didn’t get much wood on it. That allowed Crusco to knock in the loose puck.
“The goalie [had it] right along his paddle, and he didn’t tie it up,” Crusco said. “So I jumped on it and put it in the far side.”
From there, Princeton picked up its game and controlled things territorially, which led to a number of power-play chances.
“I thought the effort was better tonight than last night,” said Princeton coach Len Quesnelle. “I thought we had a hard time executing our power play, to state the obvious. … Merrimack did a good job pressuring us. And any time we tried to get the puck back to the point, we were real lethargic in moving it around.
“In the first period, we had two segments where we kept the puck in the offensive zone and we had possession and we did a good job down low, we found our points, but we couldn’t get it through.”
In fact, the Tigers had trouble throughout the night taking advantage of its opportunities, which included some pretty good rushes and activity around the Merrimack net at times.
“I think it’s indicative of our play more than anything else,” Quesnelle said. “I was surprised we had as few shots as we did after two periods. We had 13 shots miss the net in the second period, so the attempts were there. We had trouble hitting the net from the point, we had trouble getting shots off on the rush.”
Leroux was very sharp after the tough start, stopping Marco Rosa from point blank range three straight times late in the first period. Early in the second, he stopped Nick Pomponio on a shorthanded breakaway, and later did the same to Brent Gough. In the third, Crusco was denied a chance at the hat trick when Leroux made a tough save off a giveaway. Finally, Leroux robbed Rosa during a power play off a one timer from between the circles, kicking out the left pad while falling the other way.
Merrimack gets thrown right back in the fire, with a home game Tuesday against Maine and a meeting at No. 2 Boston College next Friday.
“We haven’t played too great out of the league … and we put back to back games together here, which I was pleased with,” said Serino. “Wins always help. When you don’t have a lot of them, you need the wins. It’s difficult to go into anybody’s barn and win two games.”
Serino said he expects Healey to continue to be part of the regular goaltending rotation.
“Every time we’ve used him, he’s played well,” said Serino. “He’s earned the playing time. That’s why we played him tonight. It wasn’t a matter of it was a nonleague game, he’s earned the playing time.”
Princeton (5-13-0) has now lost four straight nonleague games, following up a big home win over Harvard.
“Going through what we went through last year, that was some adversity to go through,” Quesnelle said. “And you grow from it, and this team has to look at where we were last year, and keep [this year] in perspective.”