College Hockey:
Cucci nets hat trick and four points, buoys Merrimack in win over Northeastern

— Joe Cucci led the Merrimack Warriors with a hat trick and an assist over the Northeastern University Huskies 4-3 Friday evening in a chippy overtime battle at Matthews Arena.  Chris Barton earned four assists on the night as well.

“Anytime you can battle back on the road and get points against a team that’s been playing as well as Greg’s [Cronin] team has been playing it’s a big win,” said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy.  “We’ve got a lot of winners in our locker room.  You can change the head coach and players but the hardest thing to change in a program is the culture.”

Each team scored two power play goals thanks to the physicality of the night’s game.  Merrimack notched 14 penalties and Northeastern nearly matched that with 13.  Between the two teams there were 108 penalty minutes.

The Huskies capitalized on one their fourth power play of the first period when Chris Barton was sent off the ice for hooking.  When the Huskies got the puck in the Warriors’ zone, Wade MacLeod passed to Anthony Bitetto, who was posted at the top of the circles.  Bitetto took a hard slap shot and Tyler McNeely gave it a quick tap past Merrimack goalie Joe Cannata to put the Huskies up 1-0.

The goal marks McNeely’s ninth of the season, while MacLeod and Bitetto picked up their 13th and 12th assists, respectively.

Nearly five minutes into the second period, the Huskies went up 2-0 as Drew Daniels earned his first goal of the season on a pass from Steve Quailer.  Daniels shot the puck from between the circles past Cannata.

About a minute later, the Warriors cut their deficit to one when Jeff Velleca picked up his 14th goal of the season.  Velleca shot the puck in a similar fashion to Daniels’ goal from between the circles on a pass from Joe Cucci.  Barton also earned a helper on the play.

At 1:48 in the third period, Braden Pimm was sent off the ice for hooking. 41 seconds later, Cucci scored his first goal of the evening to tie the game at two.  Barton and Stephane DaCosta both earned assists on the play.

Twenty seconds after the goal, the referees whistled Ryan Flanigan for elbowing and sent him to the penalty box.

With a one-man advantage, Steve Silva regained the Huskies’ lead at 3-2 with help from teammates Brodie Reid and Tyler McNeely.

At 9:07 Bitetto picked up a cross-checking penalty and left NU short-handed.  Thirty seconds later Cucci earned his second goal of the evening and tied the game at three with a one-time shot past NU goalie Chris Rawlings.  Collins and Barton both earned assists on the goal.

With five minutes left in the third period, the game’s physicality increased significantly. Jordan Heywood and McNeely were both sent to the locker room after they each picked up face masking penalties and game misconducts.

At the same time Bitetto, Silva, DaCosta and Mike Collins were all charged with hitting after the whistle and were sent to the penalty box.

“I think both teams play with a real physical style,” said NU head coach Greg Cronin.  “I thought tonight’s game was physical and dirty.  There were a couple low hits made. I don’t have anything against Merrimack, but they are a physical team and we are too.”

Four minutes passed in overtime as both teams battled for control of the puck.  At 4:32, Cucci put the game-winning goal in the net after it bounced off Rawlings shoulders.  Barton and Jesse Todd also picked up helpers on the play.

The win boosts Merrimack into fourth place in Hockey East over Maine while Northeastern maintains their sixth place spot.

“We played almost like there was no urgency and it really irritated me,” said Cronin.  “Merrimack played with an urgency that we didn’t.  It was puzzling.”

Merrimack will be back in action tomorrow night, Saturday Feb. 5 as they host the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for a 7 p.m. game.  Northeastern will head to the TD Banknorth Garden for the Beanpot Tournament on Monday, Feb. 7 where they will face-off against Harvard in the first round.

The puck drops at 5 p.m.

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