PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Providence all but took Merrimack right out of the race for fifth-place in the final Hockey East rundown, and they did it, predictably, by beating the defensive-minded Warriors in the special teams department.
The Friars scored two power play goals, one shorthanded goal and a four-on-four goal in running past Merrimack by a 5-1 count on Friday night at Schneider Arena. Stephen Wood scored twice for Providence, his 10th and 11th tallies of the season, and rookies Colin McDonald and Bill McCreary also scored in the win as PC improved to 7-10-5 in Hockey East play this season.
The victory gave the Friars a three-point cushion over the Warriors (6-12-4 HEA), their closest pursuer for fifth place entering the weekend. With two games remaining for each team — and UMass Lowell now only three points behind Providence, too, after beating Maine at home on Friday night — PC needs a win in the back end of the home-and-home set with Merrimack on Saturday, coupled with a UMass Lowell loss, to clinch fifth. That in and of itself is really nothing more than a matter of pride, however, as it means a trip to New Hampshire to play the Wildcats in a best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series in two weeks, while the Warriors will get a more favorable draw by earning a likely trip to meet upstart Massachusetts at the same time. PC is a woeful 2-11-0 all-time at the Whittemore Center, the building UNH proudly calls home.
McDonald’s four-on-four goal and Wood’s power play one-timer from the left circle gave the Friars a 2-1 lead, erasing an early deficit by the 11:03 mark of the first period.
Chris Chaput, who leads the team in scoring with 11 goals and 21 assists, scored at 7:48 of the middle stanza on a goal that will — on paper — stand as PC’s only even-strength goal of the evening. In truth, however, Chaput turned a footrace with Merrimack defenseman Eric Pedersen into a breakaway goal only one second after a bench minor to the Friars expired — making it, by all accounts, a shorthanded score.
McCreary pounced on a loose puck for a power play goal just past the midway point of the second, all but finishing of a win against a Merrimack team that has scored more than four goals only once since beating UNH, 7-2, back on Dec. 13.
For good measure, Wood stepped out of the penalty box and beat second Warrior goalie Casey Guenther with a wrister top shelf early in the third to put it away.
“[Special teams] is huge at this time of the year,” Wood said. “If you’re not playing well at a certain time of the year but your power play is working for you, you can still win games. It’s that important for us, and it has been.”
All of the goals on Friday, even though Merrimack contributed only one, stood in stark contrast to the first meeting of the year between these two clubs — when neither team scored in a 0-0 tie on Oct. 25.
“It’s huge this time of year to have two power play goals and two shorthanded goals,” said PC coach Paul Pooley. “It’s huge any time of the year in hockey. I wanted that next goal — I wanted two and three and four. You can never be too comfortable.”
Not to be lost in all the special teams scoring by Providence was a solid effort at the other end of the rink — where the Friars expertly killed off a five-minute Merrimack power play without allowing so much as a single shot on goalie Bobby Goepfert.
Goepfert made 32 saves on the night to earn his 14th win. Freshman Jim Healey was stung with the loss after stopping only nine of the 13 shots he faced.