NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Merrimack leapfrogged Northeastern in the Hockey East standings with a 3-1 win in the opener of a weekend home-and-home series. Senior goaltender Andrew Braithwaite made 26 saves, including seven during third period penalties.
The two teams entered the game separated by only a point, though Merrimack held two games in- hand. The Warriors took a one goal lead in the opening period, expanded it to 3-1 in the second, and weathered a 12-2 third period shot disparity largely the result of penalties.
Merrimack won the special teams battle, scoring once on the power play and killing all six Northeastern advantages, including two 5-on-3 in the third. The first of those two man advantages lasted 51 seconds and featured Braithwaite at his best.
“Whenever you have a 5-on-3, you need some help from the guys in front of you,” he said. “They were clearing guys out and letting me see the puck. They made my life easier.”
Braithwaite got help from a different source on the second 5-on-3, this one slated to last for 1:38. Northeastern picked up an interference penalty on the ensuing faceoff, negating the Huskies’ last and best attempt to even the score.
“It’s mind-numbing to have two 5-on-3s in the third period when it’s a 3-1 game and not come up with a goal,” NU coach Greg Cronin said. “I give Merrimack credit. They put their bodies in front of pucks, which is the backbone of playing defense. They blocked shots religiously.”
With the win, Merrimack broke a three-game losing streak and evened its Hockey East record to 4-4-0. Earlier in the year, the Warriors were outscoring their opponents; in this game, they out-defended the Huskies. Justin Bonitatibus led the offense with a goal and an assist.
“This is a results-oriented endeavor,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said. “At the end of the day, you find ways to win. This team competed better than they have all year.
“If our team can limit a team to one goal, we’re going to have a good chance to win most nights. It comes down to getting in shooting lanes and giving your body up.”
Northeastern now falls to 3-6-1 in Hockey East with the opportunity to gain a split back at home on Saturday night.
“We got what we deserved,” Cronin said. “Merrimack’s special teams were outstanding. On the five-on-fours, they wanted the puck more than we did. They were tremendous defensively and protected the lead really well.”
Merrimack had the better of play in the first period, taking a 2-1 lead thanks to enjoying the period’s only two power plays, one of which paid off.
During the first man advantage, however, the Warriors not only didn’t score, they had to weather a Drew Daniels shorthanded breakaway.
At 11:03 they took a 1-0 lead on freshman John Heffernan’s first collegiate goal. Heffernan broke in on Northeastern goalie Bryan Mountain, who was making his first start, deked glove side and stuffed it in.
A mere 27 seconds later, however, Northeastern tied it when Tyler McNeely put the puck on net from the right side and it bounced onto the doorstep where Jake Newton backhanded it into the open net.
Merrimack capitalized on its second power play at 15:56. Stephane Da Costa passed from the left faceoff circle to Bonitatibus in the low slot and the senior one-timed it into the net. The goal was his fourth of the season.
In the second period, Heffernan almost made it a two-goal margin, setting up Elliott Sheen on a two-on-two, and Northeastern nearly evened the score on a Wade MacLeod deflection as a power play ended.
Instead it fell to a collaboration between Bonitatibus and Sheen to give Merrimack the only score of the period. Bonitatibus broke in on a partial breakaway and, hounded from behind, tried to beat Mountain five hole. The goalie made the stop but a trailing Sheen swatted in the rebound at 12:25.
All of which set the stage for Merrimack’s penalty killers and Braithwaite to make their decisive stand in the third period.