BURLINGTON, Vt. — A goal in the first minute of the game and another in the last minute of the second period were enough for Vermont to stave off the hard-charging Merrimack Warriors, 2-1, Saturday at Gutterson Fieldhouse.
Viktor Stalberg scored his second game-winning goal in as many nights as the Catamounts secured their first weekend sweep of the season and a precious four points in the Hockey East standings, despite being thoroughly outplayed in the third period.
Merrimack got a five-on-three power-play goal early in the final period and pressured Vermont until the bitter end, when Grant Farrell hit the post from the top of the circle with 12 seconds to play.
“I think they kept us right on our heels for a good part of that game,” said UVM coach Kevin Sneddon. “It was a game of inches. Last week, that puck went in [in a 4-3 loss to Providence in the last 14 seconds of overtime]; this week, off the post and out in the final 20 seconds of the game.”
With the win, Vermont (10-11-7, 9-7-5 Hockey East) stays tied for fifth with Boston University, who defeated Maine, 2-1, in overtime. Both have 23 points, one less than Northeastern and PC, tied for third.
“Points are hard to come by in Hockey East play,” said Sneddon. “You have to fight for every single point and to come away with four on the weekend” that’s the first time we’ve done it all year, and that’s great for us.”
The Catamounts wasted little time, getting on the scoreboard just 14 seconds in the game. Colin Vock won an offensive-zone faceoff back to Dean Strong, who one-timed the puck from the top of the slot over Merrimack goaltender Andrew Braithwaite’s (16 saves) left shoulder.
“It was so early that there’s a whole lot of game left,” said MC coach Mark Dennehy of the early goal. “The disappointing part is we had a certain alignment we wanted to be in for that faceoff and weren’t in it.”
Wahsontiio Stacey nearly gave Vermont a two-goal advantage with 12:41 left, but hit the post behind Braithwaite after a scramble in front. It was one of two posts hit by UVM in the period.
Stalberg added his third goal in two games in the final minute of the second for a 2-0 Vermont lead. He finished off a three-on-two with both Brian Roloff and Kevan Miller. The puck barely sneaked over the goal line in the air before Braithwaite, who thought he had gotten to it in time, knocked it out of the net.
“It was obviously kind of a weird situation there,” said Stalberg of his eighth goal of the season. “I guess guys on the bench kept saying the puck was in at first and just back right out and it was hard to tell, though. I just took it hard to the net and hoped for the best there. I guess we got a little bit of luck there, but you can always use that.”
“I thought Viktor really distinguished himself as one of the better players in Hockey East this weekend,” said Sneddon. “He’s been doing it for the last three, four weekends, but this weekend he was the difference both nights; hard to argue with that.”
The Warriors attempted just six shots in the second, three of which were on target.
“It was one of the cleanest grade-’A’ shot charts I’ve seen in a long time,” Dennehy said. “How many chances did either team have in the first two periods? They get a bang-bang faceoff goal and then Stalberg makes an NHL play; not much you can do.”
The third period, though, was all Merrimack, as the Warriors outshot Vermont 12-4. Cucci’s goal cut the Vermont lead to one. He ripped a shot from inside the right circle just under the crossbar and over the glove of Joe Fallon (19 saves).
Fallon made some huge saves for the Catamounts to secure the lead from that point on, including two with 7:33 left on another Merrimack power play. He denied Pat Kimball at the right post on a rebound with his pad with his best save of the night.
“I thought they did a nice job on the forecheck [in the third period],” said Sneddon. “They changed it up a bit and our defensemen had a tough time reading it, what their options were, and as a result, we had a lot of turnovers.”
“I thought we played with desperation in crucial parts of the game,” said Dennehy. “That’s the way you need to play it all the time, unfortunately. College hockey is what it is. It tends to be a frenetic game, and you take a shift off, you take a couple shifts off, a period, whatever, it can come back to haunt you.”
Merrimack (10-15-3, 4-15-2) is seven points out of the final playoff spot with five games to play and faces Providence in a home-and-home series next weekend, starting in North Andover Friday.
The Catamounts, who are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games, are on the road next weekend for two at Mass.-Lowell.