NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Perhaps they can be thankful for Massachusetts-Lowell. Beyond that, the Warriors could be hard-pressed to come up with grace at Thursday’s dinner table.
If not for the still-winless River Hawks, Merrimack would be sitting in the cellar of Hockey East. Another performance like Tuesday night’s 5-1 loss to visiting Northeastern, though, and it won’t take long for them to get there.
Junior forward Brian Swiniarski scored twice while senior center Jason Guerriero assisted on three first-period goals, as the Huskies put together possibly their best 60-minute effort of the season in front of 1,734 at Lawler Arena.
Their fourth straight loss dropped the Warriors to 1-7-0 in the league, just one loss away from their worst start ever (1992-93). Meanwhile, Northeastern (6-5-1, 3-2-0) went back over the .500 mark after suffering a weekend sweep to No. 6 New Hampshire.
“This was a mental game for us,” said Swiniarski, who assisted on linemate Joe Santilli’s goal in the first minute of play and is now tied for the team lead in goals with six. “We have good chemistry, good hard-working kids. We just needed to get it in our heads that we needed to come out and work hard.”
Merrimack head coach Chris Serino is baffled why his club, which has dropped six of seven, refuses to adopt that same approach.
“The most disappointing part of tonight was I absolutely believe our kids came here and thought they were going to win easy,” a visibly frustrated Serino lamented. “They absolutely thought we just played New Hampshire, we just came off of some tough games and this is going to be easy.
“(Northeastern’s) a good hockey team, one of the best we’ve played all year. And they didn’t respect them one bit, until it started to get embarrassing.”
In an early indication of things to come, Merrimack trailed from practically the opening faceoff.
Continuing to struggle with teams cycling down low — a problem that has plagued them for a month — the Warriors found themselves immediately backed in on starting goaltender Frank McLaughlin (10 saves). Santilli took Guerriero’s feed from the side of the net at the bottom of the left circle and snapped it in the top right corner just 41 seconds into the game.
The instant deficit zapped whatever small amount of gusto Merrimack carried onto the ice, and Northeastern made sure to take advantage.
At the 8:50 mark, Huskies defenseman Steve Birnstill wasted no time in wristing a Guerriero pass from the left corner inside the right post of McLaughlin, who was still in the process of getting back on his feet, having spread-eagle stretched in fear of a Guerriero wraparound attempt.
The power-play goal was the 14th of the season for Northeastern, putting it near the top in the league in percentage, and the fourth the Warriors have surrendered in four games after previously killing off 37 straight penalties.
Showing slight signs of shaking off its lethargic start, Merrimack’s carelessness with the puck cost it yet another goal late in the period. Freshman forward Jordan Fox failed to keep the puck inside the visitors’ zone and was forced to chase it down in his own end. Pressured by Guerriero, Fox’ clearing attempt landed on the stick of Swiniarski, who surprised McLaughlin with a quick shot that ricocheted in off the crossbar at 17:56.
Looking for a quick jumpstart, Serino pulled McLaughlin in favor of sophomore Jim Healey, who lost the starting job three games ago. The move temporarily paid off as defenseman Rob LaLonde scored his third of the year 5:05 into the period with a skipping shot that beat Huskies goalie Keni Gibson (28 saves), making the score 3-1.
But all Merrimack momentum was quickly halted when it was forced to kill three straight penalties, including a 48-second two-man short-handed situation, after center Matt Byrnes was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct on top of a tripping call at 7:43.
Unlike during its two losses to UNH, Northeastern turned in a solid third period, putting the game out of reach on Jared Mudryk’s fourth of the year at 5:31. Swiniarski added his second of the night on a breakaway, set up by a nifty up-ice pass from defenseman Chuck Tomes, with 8:02 remaining.
“The third period was an area we really wanted to stress working hard, moving our feet and getting the puck to the net,” said Swiniarski, whose teammates are anticipating a showdown Saturday against No. 4 Boston College. “Our biggest problem the last couple of games is that we’ve had a third-period meltdown. They had the momentum going into the third, and we knew we really needed to bare down and bring it back to us.”
Kevin Conway covers college hockey for the Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune.