ORONO, Maine — Rusty start, fine finish for Maine.
Showing the mettle that has earned them the No. 2 ranking in recent polls, the Black Bears battled back from a 2-0 deficit for three goals, including two in the final period, to end Merrimack’s season with a 3-2 win over the Warriors in front of 5,206 fans at Alfond Arena.
The win moves Maine (28-7-3) into the Hockey East semifinals, where it will face eighth-seeded Boston University, which upset Boston College for the second time in three nights on Saturday, 4-2.
Merrimack, meanwhile, is now winless in 12 straight Hockey East playoff games, and has won just three playoff games since 1990.
“This weekend is exactly what I expected it would be,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “Both games came down to the wire, and I am proud of the guys for the way they played.”
Maine outshot the Warriors 36-11 on Saturday, but many of those shots came from well outside the slot, causing Whitehead a bit of concern.
“I think early on, especially, we weren’t able to get to the front of the net,” Whitehead said. “We weren’t able to get there for second-chance shots.”
Todd Jackson scored the game-winning goal on a rare second chance in front of Merrimack netminder Jim Healey (33 saves).
On his goal, Jackson wheeled in from the left side and took control of the loose puck at the top of the left circle. He circled in low and took a quick shot on Healey, who bobbled the rebound. Jackson was still planted in front of the net, and whacked at the puck again, this time sending it into the twine for the game-winner.
“(Mike) Lundin had it tied up in his skates,” Jackson said. “I don’t know if he kicked it or if it squirted out, but the puck slipped out. I looked up and saw I had a lane to the net, so I went for it.”
The score was tied in the first place thanks to John Ronan, Ben Murphy, and a massive miscommunication between Healey and teammate Eric Pedersen.
With Maine killing a penalty, Healey lost his stick behind his own net. As Pedersen tried to hand the stick back to Healey, Ronan scooped up a turnover at the blue line and skated to the top of the right circle. As Healey reached for his stick, Ronan fired a shot to the stick side, picking the top left corner.
“It must be the playoffs,” said Ronan, who scored the game-winning goal for Maine against Harvard two years ago in the NCAA regional in Worcester, Mass. “That shot went a bit higher than I wanted it to, but the result was the same.”
Brendon Clark put Merrimack on top at 17:05 of the first.
Clark finished off with a nifty backhand shot from less than three feet in front of Maine netminder Frank Doyle after two nice passes from Ryan Sullivan and Jeff Caron at the blue line. Doyle went down to cover the tip-in and Clark stopped the shot, waited for Doyle to commit, and flipped it just under the crossbar.
Maine had a solid chance at the 14:24 mark when Colin Shields fed Michel Leveille in front of Healey. Leveille’s shot hit Healey in the shoulder and popped loose, but the netminder rolled onto his stomach to cover the puck just as Maine’s Greg Moore got there, averting the goal.
Despite the score, Maine outshot the Warriors 12-4 in the opening frame, and had several more solid scoring chances, but couldn’t solve Healey.
Merrimack extended its lead at 7:19 of the first period when Tony Johnson snuck the puck past Doyle from low in the left circle after a nice cycle on the power play by the Warriors. The puck caught a piece of Doyle on the way into the net, but not enough to deter it.
Maine struck back with its first of the game on an awkward shot from the left corner.
With the Black Bears coming off of one of their three second-period power plays, Dustin Penner slipped the puck to Todd Jackson in the right corner. Feeling some pressure, Jackson skated behind the net and slid the puck to Shields, who was waiting in the left corner.
Seeing Prestin Ryan crashing in from the point, Shields fired the puck at the net. Instead of bouncing off Healey for a rebound, the puck slithered through the distracted goaltender’s legs and into the net, pulling the Black Bears within one at 2-1.
“I noticed all season the way he stands, he leaves a space between his leg and the post,” Shields said. “I saw a bit of space again. I tried the same thing in the third and got it through again, but it went across the goal line because it didn’t hit anything.”