ORONO, Maine — Half empty or half full? Game 2 Saturday night will decide that.
Merrimack had its chances, even had second-ranked and heavily favored Maine on the run at times Friday night, especially during a well-played second period.
But a pair of special-teams goals from Black Bears forward Colin Shields proved the difference, as the Warriors came up short in their first upset bid of the weekend, 2-1, falling behind in the best-of-3 Hockey East quarterfinal series.
Merrimack faces elimination by way of a sweep for the sixth straight season when the two clubs return to Alfond Arena for a 7 p.m. start Saturday. The Black Bears, meanwhile, are seeking their record 15th semifinal appearance in the league’s 20-year history.
Game 3, if necessary, would be again here Sunday night.
“I thought we got lucky tonight, to be quite honest with you,” Maine head coach Tim Whitehead said candidly. “I thought Merrimack outworked us in the first half of the game and outplayed us. They were making better plays, they were winning more pucks. We really dodged a bullet.”
Much of the credit for that rests with star goalie Jimmy Howard, whose 14-save effort sounds unspectacular but was much to the contrary. Merrimack tested the league’s reigning Rookie of the Year with a half dozen point-blank shots, especially early in the second period with the scored tied at 1-1.
However, the Warriors handed over about another half dozen scoring chances against Howard, who has allowed more than two goals just once in 16 games this season, in an effort to set up the perfect shot out front.
“Territorially, it was a pretty even game,” said Merrimack head coach Chris Serino, still winless in 11 postseason games. “We just didn’t put the puck at the net enough. We were wanting to get too fancy with it.
“We had a couple of 2-on-1s that we missed the net on. You’ve got to put 25 or 30 shots on this kid, not 15 or 16. And we had the opportunities to do that and just didn’t.”
At the other end of the ice, 2004 Rookie of the Year candidate Jim Healey was matching Howard save for save until late in the second period. Maine eventually put its offense in high gear, outshooting the seventh-seeded visitors, 19-7, over the game’s final 28 minutes.
“I think I can turn it up another notch,” said Healey, who finished with 25 saves. “That’s definitely what I want to do. If we can get a couple of goals on them, we can beat them.”
The Black Bears knew they were in for a fight when Merrimack was staggered but answered the early knockout blow almost immediately.
With the Warriors skating on their first power play, Shields deflected a poor pass from the left corner intended for defenseman Bryan Schmidt at the Merrimack blueline, into the neutral zone, sending Maine’s scoring leader in for a clean 130-foot breakaway. The senior sniped the short side over Healey’s glove for his club’s 11th shorthanded goal of the year at 7:29.
But Merrimack, still on the power play, responded just 1:05 later when senior Tim Reidy was sent in alone up the left wing off a perfect cross-ice pass from Matt Johnson and ricocheted the puck off the crossbar into the net over Howard’s glove. Reidy’s 11th goal was the first Howard had surrendered in exactly 130 minutes, following back-to-back shutouts of Massachusetts-Lowell and Boston College to end the regular season.
Merrimack dominated the first nine minutes of the second period, controlling the puck and the tempo, but not getting many shots on Howard despite three odd-man rushes.
Energized by a back-to-back power plays midway through the second, Maine began to turn up the intensity in the Warriors’ zone. Shields scored the eventual game-winner at 13:43 with both teams skating a man down, one-timing a nice blueline feed from freshman Tom Zabkowicz that beat Healey to the far post.
“We’ve got to pay a little bit more attention to defense (Saturday),” Serino said. “We tried to overhandle the puck at times, and when you do that you’re playing right into their hands.”
In the third period, Healey kept Merrimack within striking distances with a pair of spectacular pad saves on partial breakaways by forwards John Ronan and Greg Moore. But the Warriors only mustered four shots on Howard, and none with Healey pulled for most of the final minute of play.
“We’ve got to throw everything we can at this kid or [second goalie Frank] Doyle [Saturday],” Serino said. “They’re both good goaltenders, and we can’t get by trying to be fancy with them.”
Whitehead has the confidence in whichever netminder he starts, but insists he won’t matter much if the players in front of him don’t give a better 60-minute effort.
“If we expect to get the same result [Saturday] playing like we did the first half of the game,” Whitehead said, “I’d be very surprised we’d get lucky again like that.”