ORONO, [nl]Maine — It looked simple enough on paper. Top-ranked squad faces young, untested road team. Bigger, faster and more experienced squad walks away with it, right?
Not so fast.
On Friday, it was anything but easy for Maine. Lead by another commendable performance from freshman netminder Ben Bishop, the Black Bears skated away with a hard fought and at times ugly 3-1 victory against Merrimack. Undermanned and outplayed during the second period, the Black Bears relied on their young goalie to stymie a potent Warrior assault.
“We are pretty fortunate I think to come out with a win tonight,” said Maine captain Greg Moore. “We weren’t too happy with how we played especially in the second period. We were taking dumb penalties, we weren’t working hard off the puck and I think we gave away too many odd man rushes, to many breakaways. Bishop really won us the game tonight.”
Although untested for much of the first and third period, Bishop hauled in his fifth consecutive win, while collecting 17 saves.
“He was unbelievable,” said Moore. “He’s really come up big at times when we need him.”
En route to their seventh straight win, Maine [8-1-0, 3-0-0] survived an onslaught from Merrimack [3-5-0, 0-3-0] in the second period. Black Bear head coach Tim Whitehead felt his crew was extremely lucky to escape with their third Hockey East victory of the year.
“Merrimack just took all the momentum in the game and fortunately the Zamboni came out for the third period, otherwise we would have been in big trouble,” said Whitehead. “The key thing was we were embarrassed. I can’t remember a period in our rink like that ever, were we gave up that many quality chances. We took too many penalties and turned the puck over at will.”
After facing numerous odd man rushes and three breakaways, Bishop hauled in 13 saves total in the period.
“It was fun to face a bunch of shots like that,” said Bishop. “You just got to stay focus and make the saves.”
The Black Bears energized by whatever Whitehead said during the second intermission appeared refocused in the third.
“On the positive side, we regrouped and out shot them 12-1 and didn’t take any penalties in the third period,” said Whitehead. “That was a big step.”
The Black Bears defense clamped down on the Warriors in the third period holding them to a dismal five shots attempted. As well, the Warriors made for their own worst enemy, committing six penalties in the period.
With the defeat, the Warriors become the latest victim in the Black Bears 18-game unbeaten streak at Alfond Arena.
“We knew that if we didn’t turn out in third, especially after that first power play goal they got, then and there it was going to be trouble,” said Soares. “The sign of a good team is to win games you shouldn’t and we did that.”
Moore tallied the eventual game winner at 17:36 of the first period after a sensational arm save by Bishop on a 2-on-1. On the ensuing play, Bishop was able to knock a knuckle puck from Rob Ricci to the side only to see the play turned up the other end of the ice.
“The puck kind of came out to the slot and I just turned around with it and hit Bret Tyler with a pass,” said Moore. “He drove the net and drew defenseman to him. The puck just squirted back to me in the slot and put it on net.”
The goal for Moore was his fifth of the year, while the assist was Tyler’s second. The score capped off a pivotal first period that saw Maine score two goals in the final five minutes.
“It felt good to finally get the first goal,” said Moore.
“It was important,” said Whitehead. “It was a good period. We moved the puck well. I thought we showed a lot of skill.”
Maine got on the scoreboard first at 15:34 when Soares on the power play one-timed a beautiful pass from Billy Ryan.
“Billy had the puck at the point and he went around to the outside and I just kind of cut to the middle and there was a lane,” said Soares. “I saw him and just yelled for a pass, then I just took a shot to the low corner and it went off the post and in. It was a great pass from Billy.”
It was the first of many great passes from Ryan on the night. The Massachusetts native registered his second assist of the decision at 1:53 of the second when Keenan Hopson found the back of the net. On the play, Ryan using his speed broke the Merrimack defense and went one-on-one with keeper Patrick Watson. Watson would stone Ryan low, only to see the puck bounce back onto the forwards stick. From behind Watson’s net, Ryan finished the play.
“Bill [Ryan] just passed it out front and it got to my stick somehow and I backhand chipped it over the goalie’s glove,” said Hopson. “It wasn’t a hard one.”
It was all the scoring Maine needed.
Merrimack ended the shutout early in the third when Matt Johnson rifled a quick shot past Bishop’s left leg pad.
“It was a 5-on-3 and we knew what they were trying to do,” said Bishop. “They were trying to work it low and go across. They were up top and I wasn’t expecting a pass across. It was just a great pass and a great shot.”
“That was in the net really quick, Johnson can score,” said Whitehead.
The tally coming at 0:33 saw Ricci and Brent Gough record assists. Merrimack finished the game 1-for-6 on the power play, while Maine went 1-for-8.
“The penalties were a big part of why we played so poorly in the second,” said Whitehead. “We stopped moving our feet and looked and held and tripped and we paid for it.”
Watson finished the game with 27 saves. Merrimack will now enjoy a two-week layoff from competition, while Maine returns to the ice on Sunday at 2 p.m. against BU.
“We definitely have a lot to work on over the next night to get ready for BU,” said Soares. “It was a good learning experience for us; we are happy to come out with a win but were not happy with our performance.”