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Playing Spoiler: Merrimack Cruises Past Providence

— After a 5-1 victory for Merrimack over Providence on Sunday afternoon, one has to wonder if the Warriors’ theme for their weekend series with the Friars was “misery loves company.”

With Merrimack’s playoff chances slim — a Merrimack loss or a Maine win in the final two weekends of the season spells the end of the Warriors’ postseason hopes — the team played the role of spoiler, taking three of four points from Providence on the weekend series to put a serious damper on the Friars’ hopes.

With four games remaining in the regular season, Providence sits four points behind Maine for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Friars close with weekend two-game sets against third-place New Hampshire and seventh-place Massachusetts.

“If you’re not going to finish eighth [and make the playoffs], you want to finish ninth. You want to finish as high as you can,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy, whose team remained mathematically able to get to eighth place after Sunday’s win. “We’ve got a lot of pride in that locker room and they’re playing for more than just playoffs. They’re playing to validate what a lot of people believe and that’s that this program is headed in the right direction.”

On Sunday, in front of a national television audience on ESPNU, the Warriors proved their worth but did so without playing their best hockey. Instead, they were opportunistic and took advantage of solid special-teams play.

“We did a good job killing penalties and a good job on the power play. We blocked some shots and Joe Cannata played well in net,” said Dennehy. “But other than that we have a lot of things to work on.”

The differences in the game were goaltending and special teams. Merrimack scored its five goals on just 21 shots and Warriors goaltender Cannata made 38 stops to pick up the win.

At the same time, the Warriors’ power play scored three times in five attempts while holding the Friars scoreless in four chances.

“We lost a lot of games this year because of special teams,” said Merrimack sophomore Joe Cucci, who netted the first two power-play goals of the game for the Warriors. “It was nice to finally have them come through.”

Territorially, the opening 20 minutes were dominated by the Friars, who held a 17-6 advantage on the shot chart. But two penalties led to the Warriors cashing in twice for the period’s only two goals, including a buzzer-beater as the period came to a close.

Cucci got the Warriors on the board at 12:16, finishing off a two-on-one with Jesse Todd, burying the puck at the right post.

Providence peppered the Merrimack net for nearly the rest of the frame, but Cannata stood tall to stop shots from every angle.

With 34.5 seconds remaining, Friars defenseman Eric Baier was whistled for hitting from behind, putting the Warriors back on the power play. Though it looked like the period would end before Merrimack could get off a shot, Chris Barton fed a cross-crease pass to Cucci in the final seconds. Cucci had trouble handling the puck but eventually fired it into the goal as the buzzer sounded.

Referee Tom Quinn immediately signaled a goal but instant replay was consulted. It took Quinn just a few seconds to decide that the goal would stand, giving Merrimack a 2-0 lead heading into the intermission.

“I didn’t see [the puck] coming. I just felt it in my skate,” said Cucci. “I was just trying to get it off as quick as I could. This was the one game where we’ve had replay all year. I thought that was going to backfire on us.”

The second ran much the same as the first, with Providence controlling the play territorially but Merrimack cashing in on the power play.

This time it was Rob Ricci who buried the rebound of his own shot at 3:44 to give the Warriors a 3-0 lead. It was the first time all season that Merrimack has held a three-goal lead.

That distinction, though, lasted just 72 seconds as Providence’s Austin Meyer scored his fourth goal of the season at 4:56, cutting to the slot and firing a shot five-hole on Cannata.

The Friars continued to press and held a 28-11 lead in shots through two, but Cannata was solid on the initial saves and the Warrior defense cleared loose puck from harm’s way.

In the third, Merrimack extended the lead by taking advantage of a miscue by Beaudry. After a miscommunication with the defenseman, Beaudry turned the puck over behind the net and the puck ended up at the left faceoff dot where Carter Madsen one-timed it into the empty net.

“We’ve made a lot of deposits into that bank all year,” laughed Dennehy, who noted his team has been the victim of similar miscues often this year. “That was the first time we’ve made a withdrawal.”

Defenseman Adam Ross scored an empty-net goal with 1:25 remaining to account for the 5-1 final, Merrimack’s largest margin of victory of the season.

For the Friars, Sunday’s loss considerably damaged their playoff hopes. They now have to make up five points over the final four games to pull ahead of Maine for the eighth spot. Maine, by virtue of winning the season series, holds the tiebreaker.

But the playoffs are the farthest thing from Providence head coach Tim Army’s mind.

“We’ve just got to go play as well as we can Friday night [against Boston College],” said Army. “You lose 5-1 at home at this time of the year and I wouldn’t be too worried about the playoffs right now.”

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