BOSTON — It’s only about three miles from Agganis Arena to the TD Garden in downtown Boston, but it’s sure taken a long while for Boston University to get there over the last several years.
For the fourth year in a row, the Terriers needed to win the rubber match of a best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series to advance to the big stage on the following Friday. Sunday, they did it again with a 3-0 win over the stubborn Merrimack Warriors in front of 3,433 rain-soaked fans. The fact that BU shut down all seven Merrimack power plays while scoring on two their five man advantages was a huge factor in the victory.
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Sophomore Kieran Millan stopped all 34 Merrimack shots for his first shutout of the season and the fourth of his career. Offensively, Nick Bonino led the way with a goal and two assists for the Terriers, who also received two-point efforts from Kevin Shattenkirk and Vinny Saponari. Joe Cannata made 27 saves for the Warriors.
“Jekyll and Hyde,” Terriers coach Jack Parker said, reflecting on the quarterfinal series. “Friday night: Yes, there’s the BU hockey team. Saturday night, Oh my God. Sunday night, yes, there’s the BU hockey team. I thought we played great tonight from the get-go.
“Our really important guys answered the bell,” Parker added, citing Bonino, Shattenkirk, Colby Cohen and David Warsofsky among the skaters. “They all had tough nights last night and bounced back and played great tonight. And our most important guy played great all weekend, Kieran Millan. Great to see him get a shutout.”
“Pretty hard-fought series,” Warriors coach Mark Dennehy said. “I’ve got a room full of disappointed players. I don’t know if anybody believed in this team except this team. Any advancement that we’ve made as a program is because of those players.”
BU eked out a narrow escape at 2:32 of the first period, when an Elliot Sheen shot from the right wing slipped through Millan before Warsofsky cleared it away, just inches from the goal line.
At 9:12, the Terriers took the lead — the first time in the series that they scored the first goal. Nick Bonino did a nice job of protecting the puck in the corner until he spied Kevin Shattenkirk cruising in from the left point. Bonino flipped a backhanded pass to the Terriers captain, who buried the short-side shot.
It stayed that way until late in the period, when BU enjoyed possession for solid minute with a delayed penalty call. Finally, Bonino took a shot off Cannata’s mask. The puck went high in the air before Cohen knocked it in after it landed, but a video review negated the goal due to the fact that a Warriors player had touched it shortly before during the delayed penalty. Parker didn’t see the touch when it happened and questioned the call but afterward acknowledged that it was the correct call.
Less than 15 seconds later, though, BU made the waved-off goal a moot point. On the long-awaited power play, Bonino got the puck behind the net and brought it out front completely unimpeded by any defender. Cannata stopped his initial shot, but Bonino backhanded the rebound in high before a defender could knock him off the puck.
“The power-play goal that Bonino got after the waved-off goal was huge,” Parker said.
“It couldn’t get any worse than last night,” Bonino said. “I thought it was one of the worst games I’ve played at BU. No matter how hard we tried, nothing clicked. So it was good to come back with focus.”
The second period featured no goals but any number of dodged bullets, particularly for the home team. Terriers freshman Wade Megan hit a post at 3:30, but after that the Warriors had all the close calls throughout the period. At 12:50, John Jamieson almost scored off a wraparound pass with Millan off balance on the other side of the net. Less than a minute later, a Karl Stollery shot from the point got redirected and hit the crossbar.
Then, at 18:15, a loose puck sat in the crease behind Millan, and Joe Cucci got a stick on it before Millan sprawled back to smother it near the goal line. After all of that, BU held on to a 2-0 lead going into the third, the first time in 10 games that the Terriers led after 40 minutes of play. No one could confirm when the Terriers suffered through a longer streak of that sort, but it goes back to 1998 at the very least and likely much further than that.
Merrimack dominated the third period with shots and possession, as BU mainly looked content to sit on its lead until going on a power play with about three minutes left. At that point, the Terriers wasted no time putting the game away at last. Behind the Merrimack goal, Saponari set up Chris Connolly for a short-side shot and goal that was almost identical to the Terriers’ first tally of the night.
BU (18-16-3) will face Maine on Friday night in the Hockey East semifinals. “This is the fifth time in the last six years that we’ve had to win this game to get to the Garden,” Parker said. “That’s not good for my health.”
The Terriers will need to win the league title in order to qualify for the national tournament. Merrimack finishes the season with a 16-19-2 record, tying its best-ever record since joining Hockey East for the 1989-90 season. That previous 16-19 record came when BU alumnus Ron Anderson coached the team in 1993-94.