NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Sometimes there’s just no justice in hockey.
A battered and worn-down Merrimack squad played its most inspired 60-plus minutes of an increasingly difficult season Friday night, throwing bodies around and shots on net at a frantic pace, only to have it all erased by a strange bounce of the puck in an even stranger overtime.
Massachusetts-Lowell’s Danny O’Brien found himself alone in front of the Warrior net as the puck deflected off a skate directly to the feet of goalie Casey Guenther. The sophomore forward alertly backhanded in the game-winner with just 1:10 remaining in OT, as the River Hawks escaped Lawler Arena with an inconceivable 4-3 win.
“We were outclassed, outplayed and outcompeted by Merrimack tonight,” said relieved UML head coach Blaise MacDonald, whose club improved to 7-3-1 in Hockey East (12-9-3 overall). “They clearly didn’t get what they deserved.”
As chance would have it, O’Brien actually appeared to have scored the overtime clincher 23 seconds earlier when he banged home a Paul Falco rebound on a seemingly harmless break into the Merrimack zone. However, assistant referee Frank Keough ruled Falco knocked the net off its moorings the instant before the puck crossed the goal line, thus convincing referee Tim Benedetto the goal should be nullified.
And that came just 21 seconds after Warriors forward Steve Crusco missed the net high to the glove side of Lowell goalie John Yaros on a penalty shot that was called when River Hawks defenseman Matt Collar purposely removed his goal with the Warriors pressing for the potential game-winner.
“It just goes to show you we’re really a resilient club this year,” O’Brien said. “It was real tough having a win and then having it taken away from you a few seconds later. But I knew that we were going to pull through, whether it was me or one of the guys.”
The wild extra session and ultimate loss overshadowed the fantastic effort short-handed Merrimack turned in during regulation. The Warriors — missing four starters to injury — displayed their best neutral-zone transition game of the season, which translated into an overwhelming 44-28 shot advantage. But Yaros (41 saves), starting just his second game for Lowell, weathered the firestorm well.
“Mistakes were made at the end of the game that were just inexcusable,” said visibly upset Chris Serino, Warriors head coach. “Not just one guy, two or three of them. We had two or three breakdowns on the ice at the same time” on the winning goal.
“In this league, to give one like that away — you just can’t do that,” added Serino, whose team fell to 7-13-3 (2-9-3 Hockey East). “And it’s a real shame, because I thought we played hard and we played well.”
The clubs will complete the home-and-home weekend series Saturday night at the Tsongas Arena in Lowell.
“It’s just one of those games that you just feel fortunate,” MacDonald said. “I would have been happy with a point let alone score two overtime goals.
“They played a perfect half-court game, but when we were finally able to get it behind their defense, we began to look a little bit like a hockey team.”
Third-period goals from senior Tony Johnson and freshman Jordan Black, respectively, gave Merrimack its first lead of the night with 2:58 to play, erasing a 2-1 Lowell lead at the second intermission. But just 1:01 after Black scored the first of his career, burly River Hawks center Ben Walter netted the equalizer on a failed clearing pass by the Warriors.
Walter may be out for a while, though, with a knee injury suffered during his club’s crazy OT celebration.
Former area high school standout Todd Fletcher gave the visitors the slim second-period slim despite Lowell being badly outplayed. The fleet right wing made a power move to the net around Merrimack defensemen Jeff Caron and literally pushed Guenther, as well as the puck, over the goal line at 7:01 for his first as a River Hawk.
Although the Warriors held a decisive edge in scoring opportunities, Lowell skated during the opening 10 minutes like a club intent on extending its unbeaten streak in Hockey East to six games.
The River Hawks controlled the neutral zone and tempo, constantly pinning the Warriors deep in their own end. Their aggressive play paid off in a nifty goal by senior Andrew Martin (three assists) at 5:55. Fletcher fought off the persistent checking of Merrimack defenseman Rob LaLonde to win a foot race to the rolling puck along the left boards. The freshman then threw a centering pass out in front of the net that Martin redirected past Guenther with one hand on his stick as Caron wrapped up the other.
After successfully killing off its 22nd straight short-handed situation, Merrimack seemed to shake off the rust of a week-long layoff, seizing control of the play for much of the rest of the night and sending it into the first intermission tied at 1-1.
The moment Merrimack’s first power play expired, freshman Matt Byrnes one-timed Nick Pomponio’s blind, behind-the-back pass from the side of the net over the left shoulder of Yaros to knot the score at 15:56. The goal was Byrnes’ fourth of the season, all coming in the last six games.