NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Say this for Matt Johnson: His timing is impeccable.
After missing 20 straight games recuperating from a broken jaw suffered Nov. 15, the sophomore forward returned to the Merrimack lineup Friday night to score his first goal of the season in front of an electric Lawler Arena season-high crowd of 2,752, not to mention a New England Sports Network television audience.
Johnson’s surprising comeback also helped ignite the rest of the surging Warriors, who practically ran Northeastern out of the building in the early going on their way to an impressive 4-1 Hockey East win.
Though his goal with 40 seconds left in the first period wasn’t anywhere near a thing of beauty, Johnson wasn’t complaining after practicing for the last two weeks but having just received medical clearance to play yesterday morning.
“It was just coincidence,” said Johnson, hurt during an ugly 6-1 loss at Boston University. “I was injured during a TV game, and I came back during a TV game.”
With Merrimack leading 1-0 on defenseman Eric Pedersen’s first of the year, Johnson threw a blind pass from behind the net that deflected off the skate of Huskies center Ray Ortiz and trickled between the pads of unsuspecting goalie Keni Gibson.
“It was really good to finally get that first one and get back on the board,” said Johnson, who was scoreless with eight assists through the season’s first 11 games. “Some of the guys on the team were really starting to give me grief for not having scored.”
Admittedly, one of those guys was sophomore Brent Gough, who welcomed his former linemate back with a short-handed goal and a pair of assists.
“He did a great job when he went out there,” said Gough, who assisted on Pedersen’s goal and center Marco Rosa’s team-leading 14th of the season, “especially for a guy coming off a broken jaw. You’d think he’d be tentative, but he was flying. We really had a presence out there for a fourth line because of him.”
The win, coupled with Massachusetts-Lowell’s loss to No. 1 Boston College (4-1), puts Merrimack temporarily alone in sixth, a point behind next week’s home-and-home opponent Providence. The fifth-place Friars fell Friday night at No. 3 Maine (3-2) and complete their weekend series in Orono Saturday night, while Lowell hosts BC.
The Warriors are a long shot for home-ice advantage in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs with an outside chance at catching fourth-place New Hampshire. However, the Wildcats, who host Northeastern Sunday afternoon, have two games in hand on Merrimack.
“We’ve finally been consistent over the last three weeks,” said Warriors head coach Chris Serino, whose club is now unbeaten in three straight games (2-0-1). “The single game each week has definitely helped us because we were in terrible shape with injuries. You could see the difference tonight just having Matt Johnson back, being able to play a fourth line and being able to keep the other guys fresh.”
Gough threaded a pass from the side of the net to a wide-open Rosa, who snapped the puck over Gibson at 8:21 of the second period. Merrimack received an immediate delay of game penalty for the rowdy crowd throwing objects on the ice in celebration, but Gough still made the Huskies pay.
Skating on the penalty-kill unit, the power forward stripped the puck from Northeastern defenseman Tim Judy, raced up ice with the Husky tugging at him from behind but still managed to flip a backhander over Gibson’s stick at 10:08, giving the Warriors a commanding 4-0 lead.
“I actually had a (short-handed) one just before that that he saved, which I think was a backhander, too,” said Gough, recalling his 12th goal of the season. “But this time I felt the guy right on me, so I just put my leg out (to hold him off, Gibson) went down and I was able to get it over his pad.”
Northeastern head coach Bruce Crowder made his first goaltending change since Nov. 1 | a span of 24 games | to start the third period, lifting Gibson in favor of sophomore backup Tim Heneroty. The move seems to spark the otherwise listless Huskies, who carried the play over the final 20 minutes and scored the period’s lone goal on the power-play off the stick of sophomore Mike Morris at 5:48.
“It was a frustrating loss, especially because we still kind of hold our own destiny a little bit,” said Crowder, whose club fell three points behind BU for the final playoff spot. “Merrimack came right out and took control, so you have to give them credit.”
Warriors freshman goalie Jim Healey, who is coming off back-to-back Hockey East Rookie of the Week awards, made 31 saves for fifth victory of the season.
“He’s making the saves he has to make and is not letting in any soft goals,” said Serino of his new No. 1 netminder. “He’s steady, seeing the puck well and is also doing some nice things handling the puck. He’s playing with a lot of poise right now.”