PROVIDENCE, R.I. — After he scored both the tying goal and shootout winner against Union in Saturday’s Coffee Pot tournament semifinal, Merrimack captain Bryan Schmidt’s mouth was saying one thing, but his ear-to-ear grin was saying quite another.
“You’re down 4-1 and come back to tie it up 4-4, that’s huge,” said a relieved Schmidt, who lifted the Warriors into Sunday’s championship game against host Providence. “It’s a great feeling in general to come back like that. But it doesn’t feel like a win.”
As far as the formal record is concerned, Schmidt’s right. The second annual tournament’s matinee opener at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center will be officially listed as a 4-4 tie. But for a struggling club like Merrimack, even the sharpshooting defenseman had to admit a victory any kind was of the much-needed variety.
“It’s been a lot of pressure, especially since we’re close to having probably the worst record to start a season at Merrimack since we’ve turned Division I at 1-7 (in Hockey East),” Schmidt said. “Sometimes I put a lot of pressure just on myself, but I need the help of my players. They came out and did that today, which I really appreciate them for.”
Schmidt, Mike Alexiou and Jordan Black all notched their sixth goals of the season after the Warriors fell behind 4-1 to the Dutchmen, who entered the tourney riding a six-game ECAC winning streak, with 6:23 left in the second period.
Alexiou scored just 31 seconds after Union established its three-goal advantage on a nifty Jonathan Poirier wraparound jam at 13:37 after the Dutchmen survived four straight Merrimack power plays to start the second period.
With the Warriors dominating territorially and holding a 19-3 overall shot edge for the period, Black cut it to 4-3 less than a minute later with a shorthanded goal, set up nicely on a steal at his own blue line by Matt Byrnes.
Schmidt tied it 3:05 into the third on the power play off a feed from fellow defenseman Jeff Caron, who also scored Merrimack’s first goal with the man advantage.
“I thought the second period was our best of the whole year, and we carried it into the third,” said Merrimack head coach Chris Serino, whose club snapped a four-game slide. “It’s a small step, but we’ll take the tie.”
The key for the burdened Warriors this season has been scoring first. When doing so entering the Coffee Pot, they were a respectable 3-3-0. When they didn’t, they were a dreadful 0-5-0.
Making matters worse, when Merrimack trailed after the first period through the first dozen games, it was 0-7-0, based mainly on the fact the Warriors have only led once all season at first intermission.
So when Union scored the night’s first two goals, from freshmen Phil McDavitt and Josh Coyle, on its way to building a 3-1 first-period lead, Merrimack’s fate seemed sealed. But somehow the Warriors were able to summon the intensity they’ve failed to generate when needed over the past month, while the Dutchmen got a little bit too complacent.
“In the second period, I thought two things happened,” surmised Union head coach Nate Leaman, whose team sits atop the ECAC. “First is I think we probably got a little too arrogant, and they started outworking us. The second thing was the first 10 minutes of the period we were killing penalties, include two two-man advantages, which really tired us out. We weren’t really able to get our wind back until the overtime.”
Union owned all four of the five-minute overtime’s shots, testing Warriors goalie Jim Healey (25 saves) from the slot twice. Schmidt had a chance to win it in OT, too, but his 40-foot wrist shot went over the head of Union netminder Kris Mayotte (33 saves).
In the shootout, Black, Merrimack’s fourth shooter, scored the first goal, but Union’s Scott Brady immediately answered it. Schmidt avoided a second five-player shootout by ringing in a wrister off the crossbar over Mayotte’s catching glove.
“I wasn’t looking for a deke or anything because the ice was bad,” Schmidt said. “In a shootout like that, you’ve got to shoot. I got a good shot off, and it went in.”
(Coffee) Pot Shots
St. Cloud State won last season’s first Coffee Pot Tournament, which was held the weekend after Christmas, beating the host Friars, 6-1, in the championship game. … Merrimack lost last season’s meeting with Union, 3-1, giving up a trio of third-period goals, including the game-winner just 51 seconds after Schmidt tied the score. …
Entering the tournament, Providence held an overwhelming 77-20-6 all-time record over this year’s participants. Merrimack owned the best mark against the Friars at 19-61-5, while Holy Cross was winless in five meetings. … The Warriors are now 101-54-3 all-time in tournament play with their greatest success (seven titles) coming in their own Thanksgiving tournament beginning in the late 1970s and throughout the ’80s.
Kevin Conway covers college hockey for the Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune.