DURHAM, N.H. — The world’s superpowers should be envious of New Hampshire’s quick-strike capabilities.
Completely outhit, outworked and outskated by visiting Merrimack in Friday night’s second period, Hockey East’s top-ranked offense responded with a pair of goals on its first two shots to begin the third, immediately turning a once-tenuous one-goal lead into a more-than-comfortable 6-2 victory.
Most of the 6,501 inside the chilly Whittemore Center were a bit squeamish during the second intermission until freshman Mike Radja and senior Sean Collins scored 1:11 apart within the opening five minutes of the third to bust open the 3-2 affair. Radja’s fifth goal of the season and Collins’ 10th, coming on the power play, came shortly after Warriors defenseman Bryan Schmidt rang the post to the right UNH goalie Kevin Regan (30 saves) in a bid to tie the game with his second of the night.
UNH junior Mark Kolanos added a tough-angle goal over sprawling Warriors netminder Frank McLaughlin during garbage time for good measure, as the No. 7 Wildcats extended their league unbeaten streak to nine games (8-0-1).
“They make you work for everything,” said UNH head coach Dick Umile, whose club refused to overlook Merrimack in anticipation of Monday’s first-place showdown at Boston College. “And, obviously, that’s what we had to do tonight and broke it open in the third period.”
The loss — the fifth straight overall and ninth out of 10 Hockey East contests (0-9-1) — dropped Merrimack to a league-worst 1-13-1. Adding injury to insult, the Warriors will be without the services Monday at Northeastern of burly sophomore winger Mike Alexiou, who suffered a concussion as well as knee injury in a freak run-in with Wildcats defenseman Chris Murray early in the first period.
“We had a mental mistake on the fourth goal, and that was it,” said Merrimack head coach Chris Serino. “We were playing pretty good before that and had a couple of chances to score early in the period. Just a mental breakdown, which has cost us the past couple of weeks.”
Dodging the Schmidt bullet, the Wildcats, who average more than four goals a game, caught the Warriors forwards on a line change when they stole the puck on their own blueline. UNH immediately pinned the tiring visitors defenseman in their own zone, not allowing them to clear the puck for almost a minute. Radja then snapped off a low shot from the middle of the left circle, beating McLaughlin (26 saves) to the short side at 3:29.
With Merrimack defenseman Jeff Caron off for roughing, Collins was set up perfectly at the right post by linemate Preston Callander, who also scored a 5-on-3 power-play goal in the first period, to put the game out of reach at 5-2 just 4:40 into the third.
“They outshot us in the second period with three power plays,” said Umile, whose team is now 12-0-0 at home this season. “It was important to come out for the third and stay out of the penalty box. Everybody had to be aggressive, stop them from dumping it in our zone, get it in their zone and go after them. I thought we did a good job at that.”
UNH freshman Matt Fornataro scored his first of two goals just 2:10 into the contest, beating McLaughlin with a blast from the top of the right circle, as the Wildcats took it to the sleep-walking Warriors early. After a too-many-men bench minor on Merrimack and Derek Pallardy hooking penalty called barely a minute apart, Callander netted his 15th goal of the year on a feed from Brett Hemingway from behind the net at 6:05.
Ironically, despite trailing 2-0, the Warriors seemed to settle down while Alexiou was being attended to on the ice, gaining some momentum during their first power-play opportunity. Schmidt’s team-high 12th of the season, coming just 15 seconds after the man-advantage expired on a redirected wrist shot from the right point, cut the deficit to 2-1 at 13:08. Freshman Jordan Fox added his second assist on the night on the play.
Regan robbed red-hot Matt Johnson in the first minute of the second period, as the junior attempted to tie the score on a close-range tip of a nifty Brent Gough feed. Fornataro repaid his goalie with his sixth of the season just 1:14 later, wristing in a bouncing puck from the slot for a 3-1 lead.
Gough tapped in a pretty one-touch pass from Schmidt six minutes later on the first of three power-play chances in the period for the Warriors, who outshot UNH, 14-8, in the middle stanza. In fact, both teams ended the night with 32 shots, marking the first time this season Merrimack has not been outshot by a Hockey East opponent.
“If we could have continued to play in the third like we did in the second, we had a chance,” Serino said. “But you have to give them credit. When they get a chance, they put it away.”
Kevin Conway covers college hockey for the Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune.