NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Forward Jon Jankus scored a pair of second-period goals and goaltender Jimmy Howard turned aside 21 shots as No. 7 Maine shut out Merrimack, 3-0, Friday night at Lawler Arena to open its Hockey East campaign.
The loss was the fourth in five games for the Warriors and eighth in a row against the Black Bears, themselves winners of four of five.
“Merrimack’s a very hard-working team,” said Maine head coach Tim Whitehead. “For us to win a lot of loose pucks against them is a good sign. That was a big key for me was that we were able to match their intensity.”
The Warriors were blanked for the first time in 19 games dating back to Jan. 19 last season against Boston College, unable to generate much offense for the season-high 2,041 fans on hand.
“Our problem is, we don’t trust each other right now,” said Merrimack head coach Chris Serino. “Everybody is trying to do everybody else’s job; nobody does their own. Our effort’s there, they’ve just got to start trusting each other and they’ve got to trust me.”
Despite a depleted lineup short three of its key contributors in injured forwards Brent Gough and Jeff Royston as well as defenseman Ryan Sullivan, the Warriors responded with their best opening 20 minutes of the season.
Sophomore goalie Jim Healey (30 saves) returned to his steady form as Merrimack killed off three consecutive Maine power plays even though the Black Bears entered the game scoring more than a third of their 25 goals with a man advantage.
Maine first-line freshman Billy Ryan scored the first period’s only goal with the patience of a veteran, stepping around the sliding block attempt of Merrimack senior Brendon Clark before snapping off a wrist shot from 15 feet out that beat Healey over the glove at 14:32. Hometown boy Ben Murphy notched his fifth assist of the season on Ryan’s second of the year.
The second period, though, was a different story for the Warriors. Maine dominated both territorially and in shots (18-3) with Jankus converting twice on a pair of nifty efforts in both the early and waning seconds.
With the Warriors playing tentative right from the drop of the puck to begin the period, the Black Bears took full advantage, as Jankus redirected a Jeff Mushaluk shot from the point past Healey at the 1:29 mark.
Maine’s superior transition game kept Merrimack on the defensive the entire period in spite of the hosts having a handful of scoring opportunities thanks to three power plays. However, they managed just one shot in 5:32 with the man advantage as the Black Bears shut down the area directly in front of Howard, who posted his first shutout of the season and 10th of his career.
“In the second period, our momentum really surged,” said Whitehead, who was without the services of last year’s Hockey East Rookie of the Year, Michel Leveille, sidelined nursing a shoulder separation. “We kind of gradually built momentum, which is a good sign. We competed real well and had that intensity, which we’ve been looking for.”
Jankus put the game out of reach on a somewhat controversial goal, intercepting an attempted Merrimack clearing pass at center ice with :06 remaining, stepping around Warriors defenseman Jeff Caron and ricocheting a shot off the left post less than a second before the horn sounded ending the period. Referee John Gravallese conferred with the goal judge before awarding Jankus his fourth goal of the year.
Serino argued to no avail that the puck hit the post but never crossed the goal line until it deflected off the back of Healey’s skate after the horn sounded.
“That was big goal because being down 3-0 in the third period against Howard is tough,” Serino said. “It never went in. It shows it on the tape.”
The third period proved to be a chippy and scoreless 20 minutes with the teams combining for 15 penalties, including Howard and Merrimack captain Bryan Schmidt getting into a minor shoving match.
Surprisingly, neither club scored a power-play goal despite coming into the game with two of the hottest units in the league. Maine, which completes its weekend trek to Massachusetts Sunday with a matinee game at Boston University, ended up 0 for 7 while Merrimack was 0 for 6.
Kevin Conway covers college hockey for the Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune.