NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — On Monday, Merrimack College earned their first-ever national ranking, debuting at No. 18 in the USCHO.com poll. Four days later, the Warriors proved they’ve earned that ranking.
Led by a six-point effort from the top line of Stephane Da Costa (goals, two assists), Chris Barton (goal) and Jesse Todd (goal, assist) combined with a 24-save effort from Joe Cannata, Merrimack knocked off No. 7 Boston College, 5-3, in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 2,772 at Lawler Arena. The victory gives Merrimack the season series victory over the defending national champion Eagles for the first time since 1997, and improves them to 4-0-1 at home and 3-0-2 in their last five games.
“We have a lot of guys in that locker room that work so hard, so it’s nice to be rewarded,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy, a Boston College alum himself who pumped his fists to the capacity crowd as he left the ice on Friday. “We were opportunistic at times. It’s a simple game. We score five, they score three.”
Merrimack beat the Eagles into submission, literally. Their physical play frustrated the Eagles, particularly late in the game. With the Eagles trying to mount a comeback and trailing by a goal at 4-3, BC took three straight penalties, capped by a five-minute major to Brian Gibbons that put BC down two men with 2:06 remaining.
At the final buzzer, things boiled further as Steven Whitney, sitting on the bench, attacked a Merrimack player from behind, leading Eagles coach Jerry York to forcibly pull Whitney away. Whitney was given a game disqualification for excessive roughing and will be suspended for Sunday’s game against Vermont.
The late game issues aside, the game featured a playoff-like atmosphere from the opening whistle.
Boston College jumped out to an early lead when Cam Atkinson scored at 1:17 on a power play. Merrimack’s Carter Madsen was whistled for hitting from behind at 1:04 and it took Gibbons just 13 seconds to find Atkinson wide open at the left post.
From that point, though, Merrimack had the territorial advantage, outshooting BC, 14-7, in the frame. BC netminder John Muse frustrated the Warriors early, but late in the frame Merrimack stuck twice.
After killing a penalty, the Eagles lost track of the man out of the box, who changed quickly, allowing Todd to get in back of the BC defense. Da Costa fired a long pass right to his stick and Todd made a nice move around Muse to even the score at 14:38.
Just 56 seconds later, the BC defense failed to clear the puck and Joe Cucci fired a low shot from the slot that Muse stopped. The rebound, though, landed perfectly on Francois Ouimet’s stick for him to tuck it under Muse’s outstretched right pad to give Merrimack the 2-1 lead.
The Eagles were able to tie things in the final minute. Gibbons used his speed to turn a Merrimack defender and got a partial breakaway. Cannata stopped the first shot but Cam Atkinson was crashing the net and buried the rebound a split second before the net was dislodged. Video review was used to confirm the call on the ice.
In the second, the Eagles had a glaring opportunity to retake the lead. Steven Whitney was stopped on a breakaway and immediately afterwards was checked hard into the boards from behind. Merrimack co-captain Adam Ross was giving a five-minute major and game misconduct for the hit, giving the potent BC power play an extended opportunity to score.
Merrimack’s penalty killers were strong, though, keeping most of BC’s chances to the outside, holding the Eagles off the board, and before the end of the frame the Warriors retook the lead.
Once again, the Eagles defense failed to notice a floating Merrimack forward, this time Ryan Flanigan, waiting alone at the offensive blue line. Cucci fired the long pass that sent Flanigan in alone, beating Muse five-hole at 13:19 for the 3-2 lead.
“Those breakaway goals really hurt us,” said York. “We got caught with a man coming out of the box. Then we were trying to score [short-handed] and we got caught with a man behind us.”
Early in the third, Merrimack took advantage of a fortunate bounce off an end stanchion that bounced out front and eventually was buried by Chris Barton at 1:57 to give Merrimack a 4-2 lead.
However, BC rebounded and eventually drew within one on Patrick Wey’s first career goal with 12:37 to play.
BC pressured for the equalizer, but all momentum was lost late in the game when penalties cost them.
“We’ve got to stay disciplined,” said York. “Even though they didn’t score, it took our momentum away.”
Still down a man in the final minute, BC pulled Muse to draw manpower even, but De Costa was able to block a slap shot from the point and walk in alone to score the empty-netter with 7.7 seconds left.
The win improves Merrimack to 5-2-4 (4-2-3 Hockey East) while Boston College drops to 7-5-0 (5-4-0 Hockey East).
The Warriors won’t have much time to savor the win though, as they’ll travel to New Hampshire, where Merrimack has won just three times in 28 tries.
Asked how long the team can savor Friday’s win with UNH lurking 24 hours away, “I gave them 24 minutes,” said Dennehy.