OMAHA, Neb. — Sophomore forward Mike Alexiou couldn’t have summed up the season opener for Merrimack any better.
“They don’t ask how you scored, they ask how many.”
The new-look Warriors were awarded 13 power-play opportunities against Rensselaer, including four two-man advantages, yet still registered only 16 shots in the opener of the fifth Maverick Stampede. But it was Alexiou’s seemingly harmless toss on the net early in the third period that proved the difference.
With the score tied at 3-3, the burly winger threw a shot toward RPI goalie Andrew Martin from the left boards that Engineers defenseman Scott Romfo attempted to stop. Instead, the puck rolled off his stick and trickled between Martin’s pads for the eventual game-winner with 16:09 left, as Merrimack went on to post a 5-3 victory.
“It was lucky, but that’s the way it goes sometimes,” Alexiou said. “We’ve got to capitalize on the 5-on-3 chances earlier in the game, but we’ll take the lucky bounce, and we definitely got that tonight.”
Merrimack will play for just its second Division I tournament championship in Sunday’s title game (8 p.m.) at the Qwest Center against host Nebraska-Omaha, a 4-1 winner over Connecticut in Saturday’s nightcap. Coincidentally, the Warriors’ first-ever tourney championship since joining Hockey East 16 seasons ago came at the 2002 RPI Holiday Tournament.
Sophomore forward Matt Byrnes and junior defenseman Bryan Schmidt both notched a goal and assist, while sophomore defenseman Jeff Caron posted a career-high three assists, as the Warriors began the season with a win for the first time in three years.
For the Engineers, junior Chris Hussey scored along with seniors Matt McNeely and Nick Economakos (power play), as RPI found it difficult to build any momentum with so many shorthanded situations, despite holding a 2-1 lead early in the second period.
The NCAA’s new emphasis on obstruction penalties turned this into a whistle-filled affair, as referee Steve Piotrowski called 24 penalties, 14 against the Engineers. All the special-teams play forced both coaches to go deep into their benches, which seemed to work to Merrimack’s benefit.
“The way the game was being called, it changes the game,” Fridgen said. “With so many special teams, power plays and (penalty kills), you have to find a way to utilize other guys because you’ll wear out too fast.
“There was a point in the second period where if we capitalized on our opportunities we would have pulled away,” he added. “But we didn’t and it led to us taking more penalties, allowing them to get back in the game.”
Merrimack sophomore goalie Jim Healey made 29 saves, including four from close range during the last two minutes of regulation with RPI skating 6-on-3 and 6-on-4 advantages, for his sixth career victory.
Warriors freshman forward Hank Carisio added an insurance goal with 7:54 remaining on a fine individual effort, ducking under a would-be check at the Engineers blue line for the first of his career, a bullet into the top corner over Martin’s glove.
“I’m glad we won the game, because we didn’t play very well,” Merrimack head coach Chris Serino said with mixed emotions. “We didn’t play very well and we didn’t play smart.
“Even when we took control of the game with the 4-3 lead, we end up taking those two stupid penalties at the end of the game that could have cost us. But Healey bailed us out.”