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College Hockey:
Merrimack holds off late Vermont surge, prevail 2-1

— After finishing their first meeting of the season in a 2-2 stalemate, the Vermont Catamounts entered Lawler Rink looking to take the first game of a weekend doubleheader against the No. 14 Merrimack Warriors.

After a sluggish first period and late push, Vermont came up short against the Warriors in a 2-1 loss.

The first three minutes were quiet with both teams trying to establish their skating and checking game plans on the ice.

Soon after, the Warriors’ forechecking forced multiple Catamounts turnovers in their zone and put Vermont goaltender Rob Madore under an offensive assault for the rest of the first period outshooting Vermont 13 to 5.

Merrimack got on the board at 6:42 with Jeff Velleca and Joe Cucci winning a puck battle along the sideboards and slipping the puck to Chris Barton who walked into the slot and ripped it past Madore.

The first goal energized the Warriors who immediately gained reentry after the next faceoff and forced enough pressure to draw a holding penalty on Anthony Decenzo.

Vermont’s penalty kill unit stood around in their box set and allowed Merrimack’s point men all the time and space they needed to pass the puck.  Merrimack was easily able to generate second and third chance opportunities on Madore who was in desperation mode until Jesse Todd sped down the middle and buried his 13th goal of the season past him for a 2-0 lead.

Vermont’s offense on the other hand ran into hard checks from Merrimack d-men Jordan Heywood, Adam Ross and Fraser Allan all game long, and was nearly non-existent on Joe Cannata in the first period who made relatively easy saves.

Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy complimented his team’s overall defense.

“I thought our defensemen played a lot better,” he said.  “We moved the puck more efficiently and we did lay out some hits.”

The score remained 2-0 by the end of the second period but Vermont came out hungry and energetic from the opening faceoff looking to turn the tables on Merrimack.

“I really thought the momentum changed in the second period of the game and in the third we left it all out there,” Vermont head coach Kevin Sneddon said.  “Unfortunately, we were one goal shy of tying it up at the end.”

The Catamounts had numerous chances on a couple of power plays but Merrimack’s penalty kill unit played effective defense and did a good job boxing out and clearing out rebounds, protecting their netminder.

Cannata made some nice positional stops when needed to, robbing the speedy Sebastian Stalberg from the slot twice.

On the other end of the ice Madore was called upon to make game-saving saves, barely keeping the puck out of his net on chances from Rhett Bly, Mike Collins, and Ryan Flanigan that nearly snuck past him.

Merrimack was able to hold off the Catamounts in the third period who were playing with a sense of urgency trying to generate enough offense to solve Merrimack’s strong defense and goaltender.

“We knew that UMass Lowell outworked us last game and we were not going to let it happen again,” said Cannata.

Cannata kept Vermont off the board making a fast left-pad save on defenseman Drew MacKenzie, who pinched in from the point on a nicely executed back-door play.

Vermont’s luck finally changed when Stalberg found Jack Downing at the left dot and his wrist shot just above Cannata’s blocker cut Merrimack’s lead in half 2-1.

With a great pass to Downing a minute later splitting the Merrimack defense, Cannata denied Downing’s breakaway attempt going between the netminder’s pads maintaining his team’s one-goal lead.

With Madore pulled for the extra attacker the Warriors sacrificed their bodies for their goaltender, laying out on the ice, blocking shots, and sweeping pucks into the neutral zone any way they could and in the end, repelled the Catamounts’ late surge.

With Boston University defeating Maine, the Warriors (14-5-4 overall, 8-5-3 in Hockey East) are now tied for fourth place in the conference while Vermont (5-14-4, 3-10-3) sits in ninth.

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