DURHAM, N.H. — In front of a sold out crowd of 6,501, No. 12 New Hampshire edged past Merrimack 1-0 Saturday night at the Whittemore Center, securing home ice in the Hockey East quarter finals that will be held March 13-15.
The victory extends the Wildcats’ unbeaten streak to six games, and the loss for Merrimack marks the 14th time this season the Warriors have lost a contest by a one goal difference.
The Warriors, now out of contention for a playoff spot, went 0-4 on the power play and their rookie netminder Joe Cannata made 24 saves. UNH went 0-6 with the man advantage, while goalie Brian Foster stopped 26 in route to his fifth career shutout.
“I thought we played well, disciplined,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. “It took the wind from our sails trying to kill so many penalties. . . . I think a big part of the reason why we’ve been in so many close games is because both of our goal tenders have delivered, for the most part, all year long.”
“Brian Foster played solid and made a few spectacular saves,” said UNH coach Dick Umile. “When we were on the power play though and had some chances, I thought Cannata made some great saves when we could have gone up 2-0.”
Despite two power-play opportunities within the first six minutes, and outshooting UNH 10-6 in the first period, Merrimack failed to capitalize and allowed the Wildcats, who didn’t get a shot on net until halfway through the period, to get on the board first.
Senior captain Greg Collins drove the puck to the crease from the left corner in the Warrior zone, attempting to punch it in past Cannata twice. But on the third rebound, Cannata let one slip by when Peter LeBlanc was there by the right post to tuck the puck in for the Wildcats’ lone goal of the night and his 10th of the season at 13:24.
The second and third stanzas were scoreless, which made for some intense goal tending and defense.
The Warriors kept the pressure in the Wildcat zone early on in the second, as Foster blocked multiple shots from the slot and left circle by Warriors Joe Cucci and Karl Stollery. Foster managed to grab a bullet that came in off a rush, but seconds later made a diving save across the crease when Merrimack’s Chris Barton went one on one with him from the slot.
When UNH sophomore Matt Campanale was sent to the box for interference at 16:06, the Warrior power play attempted to finally push one past Foster. The best opportunities were lost when Merrimack missed out on two rebounds by re-directing the puck just wide of the net. UNH’s Collins intercepted the puck towards the end of the penalty kill and skated down to get a shot on Cannata.
The Wildcats had a strong defensive flow in the third period, blocking shots and intercepting passes, holding Merrimack to a game-low of six shots on net.
“I don’t want to take anything away from how smart and how well Merrimack played, but not until the third period did we play defensively in our own end,” explained Umile. “We played very well defensively in the third.”
LeBlanc blocked a pass in the neutral zone and went down the left wing, but couldn’t chip it in past Cannata for a second goal.
“Greg Collins, I mean he’s tenacious around the net,” said Umile. “He finds ways to stay alive, but so does LeBlanc. I mean Peter put in the only goal earlier. Tenaciously; that’s how they’ve played all year.”
UNH improves to 18-9-5 overall and 14-7-4 in HE, and despite securing home ice for the quarter finals, not all of the pressure is off the Wildcats just yet, as they are currently tied with Vermont in the Hockey East standings with 32 points.
“There is still a lot of pressure for us personally,” said Umile. “We want to continue to win and battle Vermont for the third spot; that’s where we want to be.”
The Wildcats travel to Vermont next weekend for the final two league contests of the regular season.