NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — First they overcame their star forward’s injury. Then they overcame Matt DiGirolamo’s big saves. Finally, they overcame New Hampshire’s two power-play goals on four minutes of five-on-three play as part of a major penalty.
In the end, an overtime goal at 1:42 by freshman defenseman Jordan Heywood gave the Merrimack Warriors a 3-2 victory and a sweep of their weekend series. They now stand alone in third place, three points behind UNH and Boston College, and have also risen to a tie for fourth in the PairWise Rankings.
“I haven’t scored too many OT goals, but this one was definitely special because of the adversity that we battled through,” Heywood said. His game-winner came from the point through a screen.
Stephane Da Costa, Merrimack’s leading scorer, was sidelined with a knee injury suffered in in the team’s Friday night game against UNH. When he will return remains unknown.
DiGirolamo made several key stops, including two on breakaways to keep the Warriors from breaking the game open in the first two periods.
It appeared as though that effort would pay off when a fracas with nine seconds remaining in the second resulted in a Merrimack five-minute major and two extra minor penalties. Together, the infractions would give UNH four minutes of five-on-three play with additional time to follow.
Armed with that advantage, the Wildcats erased the 2-0 lead Merrimack had built on goals by Carter Madsen and Joe Cucci.
Merrimack killed the first five-on-three, but Paul Thompson scored on the second to narrow the margin to one and Dalton Speelman buried a shot from the slot to tie the game on the resulting five-on-four.
A lesser team might have settled for the tie and even had the excuses lined up for a loss and a split of the weekend series. Not the Warriors.
“Our mantra is don’t make excuses and don’t let other people make excuses for you,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said. “If you want to ask anyone how good those players are, ask Stephane Da Costa. He knows how good his teammates are.”
So too do the UNH Wildcats, who had first place all to themselves going into the weekend with a game in hand to boot. Of New Hampshire’s attempted 80 shots, Merrimack blocked 23 of them, and had a part in forcing another 17 wide.
“Give credit to Merrimack,” UNH coach Dick Umile said. “We had a miserable weekend getting pucks to the net. Half of our shots didn’t get to the net.
“We battled back with the penalty situation to get it tied up, but our inability to get the puck out of the zone at the end cost us the game.”
The Warriors came out strong, proving that Friday night’s victory was no fluke and they could go toe-to-toe with UNH without Da Costa. At the nine-minute mark, Rhett Bly sent Brandon Brodhag in alone from the right boards inside the offensive zone, but DiGirolamo made the first of his big stops.
At 17:36, however, the goaltender couldn’t stop Carter Madsen. The junior froze his defender with a fake that created an opening, allowing him to rip a sniper shot into the upper far corner.
Four minutes into the second, DiGirolamo stopped another breakaway, this one a deke by Ryan Flanagan after a perfect pass from Elliott Sheen. Sheen then tested the netminder himself, hitting the post on a two-on-one shorthanded breakaway.
The close-but-no-cigar opportunities ended for Merrimack at the 18:10 mark when Cucci converted the rebound of a Sheen shot to extend the lead to 2-0.
The game turned on a Mike Borisenok breakaway with 10 seconds remaining in the period that Joe Cannata turned away, but the ensuing fracas resulting in 71 minutes of penalties. Most were of the 10-minute misconduct variety, but the major penalty and two extra minors gave UNH an opportunity it took advantage of, only to be undone by Heywood’s overtime goal