Although the return to the lineup of seniors David Van der Gulik and Jekabs Redlihs has helped stabilize an inconsistent Boston University team, it was the Terrier freshmen who took center stage tonight at Agganis Arena.
Led by a career-high three points by center Chris Higgins, BU’s rookies combined for three goals and five assists-75 percent of the scoring-in a 5-0 whitewashing of Merrimack in front of a crowd of 5,874.
Terrier netminder John Curry stopped 20 Warrior shots for his second shutout of the season and the fifth of his career. Matt Gilroy and Steve Smolinsky both scored their first collegiate goals, while Peter MacArthur and Dan Spang rounded out the lamp-lighting for the hosts. Despite getting ejected less than halfway through the game, freshmen Brandon Yip notched two assists, giving him eight points in his last four games.
“I thought we were terrible in the first period after getting a 2-0 lead — numb, brain dead, didn’t play very well at all,” Terrier coach Jack Parker said. “Gave them chances: they were beating us to pucks. We were trying to play on the offensive side and not playing very well. I was real disappointed with my team and let them know it after the first period.
“We came out in the second period and played very well; I think they attempted only seven shots in the second period. It was a real good shutdown by us. We did a real good job on the penalty kill all night, and in general controlled the game. The best part of the night was how we rebounded in the second.”
While BU (12-8-2, 10-6-1 Hockey East) moved into a three-way tie for second in the league in points (bearing in mind that Providence and New Hampshire each have a game in hand in comparison to the Terriers), Merrimack (4-17-2, 1-13-2) has now lost ten games in a row-ominously reminiscent of their 14-game losing streak to end last season.
“It’s probably as poor a game as we’ve played all year,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy in a rather terse press conference. “Very uncharacteristic of our team. Early on, I thought we were just trying to do too much-turning the puck over way too often-and we can’t give a team like Boston University those kind of opportunities.”
Given that Merrimack had lost a tight game in the waning minutes on Friday night, Dennehy was asked if the deflating loss factored in tonight’s poor showing.
“Not really,” Dennehy said. “We’ve played well a majority of the year. Obviously, the final balance sheet is wins and losses, but the guys in our locker room know that we’ve gone toe-to-toe with everybody in the league. At the end of the day, all you can do is look in the mirror and be the best you can be. That’s it. We weren’t that tonight, but most nights we have been.”
From the opening minute, it wasn’t Merrimack’s night. On a power play just 49 seconds into the contest, Peter MacArthur made it 1-0. His initial shot from the right point was blocked by a defender, but the rebound came right back to him. His quick-release wrister beat starting goalie Jim Healey high on the glove side.
At 10:31, Higgins made it 2-0 on a rush that showed exceptional poise and patience-particularly for a freshman-as he hung on to the puck while a defensemen slid in anticipation of a shot.
“It was just an odd-man rush, me and Yippy,” Higgins said. “He was driving hard to the net, and I saw the guy slide toward me so I was just hesitant with the puck. Just went around him and waited till the goalie committed to me. Just slipped it five-hole-he opened up his pads.”
Surprisingly, Dennehy pulled Healey at that point in favor of Patrick Watson, just as he had the night before prior to a Merrimack rally.
“Jimmy’s played well in this building,” Dennehy said in reference to the decision to start Healey. “He played so well here the last time: If he can put an effort like that together, then who knows? You could tell early on that he wasn’t playing poorly but he wasn’t playing his best. We just thought we’d see if we could catch lightning in a bottle twice and see if we could shake the team up a little bit.”
The Terriers really clamped down defensively in the second period and were rewarded with another goal at 7:11. Freshman center John McCarthy raced in for a backhand bid. Watson made the save, but ended up down on one side of the net with the puck sitting in the opposite side of the crease. Trailing the play, Gilroy had an easy tap-in.
After hitting Brock Wilson from behind, Yip was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct. Additionally, fourth-line winger Craig Sanders sprained his ankle, leaving BU with basically three lines for the rest of the game.
Curry was not tested often but came out to cut down the angle nicely on a Scott Drewicki shot during a four-on-three advantage for Merrimack at 14:11.
Dan Spang’s low shot from the left point made it 4-0 early in the third, and some nice tic-tac-toe passing-Higgins to Brian McGuirk to Smolinsky at the far post-made it a 5-0 final.
“It was exciting,” Smolinsky said. “Chris got the puck and gave it to Brian down low, so I just drove to the net. Brian made a perfect pass.”
“In the third period, even though we were undermanned we kept the puck in their zone pretty well,” Parker said. “I thought Chris Higgins played very, very well. It was a great goal he got, but he also did nice job setting up McGuirk, and McGuirk sets up Smolinsky for his first goal too-unselfish by both of those guys.”
Asked about the freshmen chipping in the majority of the points, Curry drew chuckles with his response showing his indifference to the source of the offense.
“I don’t care,” Curry said. “They’re getting it done. I just love the fact that we’re scoring goals and getting them earlier. We’re getting leads on teams where we battling back from two-goal deficits earlier in the year. In the first period we were giving up 20 shots, and now we’re on top of them. I love it.”
BU travels up Comm. Ave. for a much anticipated matchup against archrival Boston College on Friday night before hosting Massachusetts on Saturday. Merrimack plays two games at Vermont.