NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Merrimack’s special teams turned from goats into heroes over night, but it wasn’t enough to keep the club’s hopes alive for what would have been a remarkable late-season run to a fifth-place Hockey East finish.
The Warriors managed to kill off seven of eight Providence penalties — including a five-minute major in the third period — and scored a power-play goal of their own Saturday night to pull out a 2-2 tie in front of 1,973 at Lawler Arena for the season finale.
The point in the standings allows the Friars (20 points) to clinch fifth place over the hopeful Warriors (17) with one game remaining for both teams.
Merrimack, meanwhile, can lock up sixth with a win against Massachusetts-Lowell in its final regular-season game Thursday at the Tsongas Arena. A loss against the River Hawks, however, has the potential to drop the Warriors all the way down to the eighth and final playoff spot.
“In playoff hockey, we’ve got to be more disciplined in our approach to the game than we were last night,” said Merrimack head coach Chris Serino. “Defensively we played pretty well, and 5-on-5 we generated a little bit of offense. We just spent too much time killing penalties.”
Just 24 hours earlier, Merrimack surrendered a pair of power-play goals to the Friars, one shorthanded and another 4-on-4. Friday night, it allowed only 10 total shots on freshman goalie Jim Healey (24 saves) during 19 minutes of shorthanded play and even converted on the man advantage with sophomore defenseman Rob LaLonde’s bullet slapper early in the second period.
“What was good is we didn’t give up a lot of shots,” said Providence head coach Paul Pooley. “But the disappointing thing is we had a lot of opportunities to score on the power play, and on the road you need to score on the power play. But the did a superb job with the PK, pressuring us, and we couldn’t handle the pressure.”
The difference-maker in the first period for Providence was goalie Bobby Goepfert, who faced only 16 shots the entire night. Out of the four saves the sophomore was forced to make in the opening 20 minutes, three were highlight-reel material from point-blank range.
Twice he robbed Warriors forward Brent Gough within a 24-second span with stabbing glove saves while Merrimack skated with a 4-on-3 advantage.
While making a bid for Providence’s second shutout at Lawler Arena this season, Goepfert’s acrobatics allowed the visitors to carry a 1-0 lead into the first intermission. Freshman Colin McDonald scored for the second straight night, this time on the power play at 11:21 into a wide-open net as Healey was drawn out of the crease by a heads-up drop pass from the goal line by Friars senior Cody Loughlean.
LaLonde finally cracked Goepfert on the power play with a blazing 45-foot one-timer of an Eric Pedersen feed at 4:34 of the second. The goal ended a 83:34 scoring drought at home against the Friars this season for Merrimack and the personal 74:09 shutout streak Goepfert was on against the Warriors going back to senior Marco Rosa’s first-period goal on Friday.
As fate would have it, though, Merrimack needed only 37 seconds to score again, this time on junior Steve Crusco’s snapper between Goepfert’s pad off an unselfish 2-on-0 pass from senior Tim Reidy. The play developed deep in the Warriors zone when senior defenseman Tony Johnson saw both Reidy and Crusco sneak behind the Friars defenseman and delivered a perfect pass up the boards.
Merrimack’s lead, however, didn’t make it through the period. With both squads skating a man down, Providence senior Jonathan Goodwin managed to sweep in a blocked shot that caromed off the end boards at 17:08 to account for all the scoring.
Reidy was guilty of the five-minute major and game misconduct for hitting Friars senior Peter Zingoni from behind after the whistle with 10:42 left in regulation. Allowing just three shots during the five minutes, the Warriors had already weathered one penalty to start the period and successfully killed off another before overtime began.
“We wrote on the board after the second period: ‘Discipline,’” Serino said. “That’s what we wanted and obviously that’s what we didn’t get in the third period. We’ve got to play smarter hockey than that.”
Merrimack had a chance at redemption in overtime when Providence junior Chris Chaput was called for interference with 2:01 remaining. But the Warriors weren’t able to get to Goepfert, who along with Healey didn’t face a shot in the extra session.
Providence, which wraps up the regular season Saturday at home versus Lowell, is guaranteed to face either No. 8 New Hampshire or No. 15 Massachusetts on the road when the Hockey East best-of-3 quarterfinals begin March 11.
“Right now I can’t speculate on the playoffs,” Pooley said. “We can only concentrate on playing Lowell and getting a 16th win in what was thought to be a rebuilding season. Last year, we had 19 wins, so I know that means we’re a good hockey team. We’re fifth, though, higher than most thought we would finish, which is always good to do.”