NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Third-period comebacks and Merrimack College just don’t mix this season.
A tired and banged-up bunch of Warriors let a closely checked game against Northeastern University slip away over the final 20 minutes, 3-2, Saturday night at Lawler Arena in a key battle for playoff position in Hockey East.
Huskies sophomore Mike Morris scored his team’s second power-play goal of the night with 11:10 remaining to break a 2-2 tie after his club carried a one-goal lead into the third. Merrimack sophomore Brent Gough had knotted the score unassisted on a breakaway at 3:22, his 10th goal of the season.
Their third straight loss and 16th overall dropped the Warriors to 0-12-1 this season when trailing after two periods.
“We had to let the game come to us,” said frustrated Merrimack head coach Chris Serino, forced to play with a shortened bench due to injuries and a costly first-period penalty. “We couldn’t take it to them — we just didn’t have the legs to do that.”
Short three starters to injury and a fourth academically ineligible, the Warriors proceeded to lose freshman forward Mike Alexiou to a jammed shoulder during the first period before watching fellow rookie Matt Byrnes be slowed for the rest of the night by an arm injury suffered less than two minutes later.
“We were playing pretty well 5-on-5 even though we were tired,” said Serino, already dressing every player available, “but we just took some stupid penalties. I mean, the one they scored the game-winner on, we took a penalty 35 feet behind the play. You can’t do that when you’re not healthy.”
The victory was just the second of the year in Hockey East for the last-place Huskies, pulling them within two points of eighth-place Merrimack with three games in hand. Providence is currently tied with the Warriors at nine points in league play, but the Friars also hold a three games in hand.
“It’s going to be a dogfight right down to the end,” said Northeastern head coach Bruce Crowder, who notched his 200th career victory. “Anytime you get points in Hockey East, they’re precious, and tonight we were able to take two.”
Merrimack must have felt it just might be its night when by the 13-minute mark of the first period the game was still scoreless. In lackluster losses to both Brown and New Hampshire earlier last week, the Warriors found themselves chasing four goals before the crowd had even finished filing into the building.
But the hosts did take a significant loss when defenseman Jeff Caron was whistled for a five-minute major and game misconduct at 8:47 for crunching pint-sized Huskies forward Jared Mudryk from behind along the boards. Merrimack managed to kill off the five minutes with help from an interference call on Northeastern forward Eric Ortlip, limiting the visitors to just four shots on freshman goalie Jim Healey (37 saves).
Defenseman Tony Johnson scored the game’s first goal on the power play just 57 seconds into the second period, snapping in a Nick Pomponio feed from behind the net over Huskies netminder Keni Gibson (19 saves).
Mudryk tied the score at 8:19 with a hard wrist shot from 35 feet out that beat Healey under the crossbar to the glove side. The junior was sent up ice for a partial breakaway off a heads-up pass from part-time defenseman Chuck Tomes. The assist was the sophomore’s first point of the season.
Ortlip gave Northeastern its first lead eight minutes later with the man advantage, banging in a Morris rebound. The senior center’s ninth of the season marked the third straight game the Warriors had given up a power-play goal, after shutting out their opponents on 25 straight shorthanded situations the previous five games.
“Anytime a team pressures as much as they do, if you move it quickly it’s going to open up some things,” said Crowder, explaining how Northeastern broke through Merrimack’s potent penalty kill. “If you move it for two or three passes, who ever gets the fourth one really has got to attack the net because it’s going to create a 2-on-l.
“It happened on (Ortlip’s) power-play goal, but on the second power-play goal, there really weren’t a whole lot of X’s and O’s. That one just sort of came to us, and Mike did what we want Mike Morris to do — score.”
Serino hopes with just one game to prepare for next weekend at Massachusetts, his club can muster up enough to pull out a much-needed victory.
“The effort was good tonight, on the penalty kill and overall,” Serino said. “We just didn’t have any manpower. We ran out of gas.”