NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — The Merrimack Warriors continued their Cinderella season, taking the next step to the grand ball at the Garden next weekend. By defeating Maine, 6-2, they advanced to the league semifinals for the second time in school history.
If Boston University defeats Northeastern in the third game of that series on Sunday night, Merrimack will face top-seeded Boston College. Otherwise, the Warriors take on number-two seed New Hampshire.
The 10th sellout crowd of the year (and fifth straight) filled Lawler Arena with the noise and excitement appropriate for a celebratory party. Rene Rancourt sang the national anthem and the Dayton University band was imported to add to the atmosphere.
The Warriors delivered. They scored the first three goals of the game, and after Maine narrowed the gap to 3-1, they quickly reestablished the three-goal margin and then extended it.
For a minute before the final buzzer, the euphoric crowd stood and cheered.
“Part of our recruiting pitch [to these players] was, ‘You get to come in and leave footprints — you get to set the bar for other teams to live up to,’” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said. “There’s been a lot of firsts this year. This isn’t a first, [advancing to the Garden]; Merrimack has been there before, but it’s something to live up to for sure.”
The third line of Carter Madsen, Ryan Flanigan, and Elliot Sheen provided the offensive heroics, combining for nine points on the night and 16 on the weekend. Madsen recorded his first career hat trick. Flanigan contributed a goal and three assists.
Ironically, the line was matched up against Maine’s top unit, led by Gustav Nyquist. In theory, the Merrimack trio’s objective was primarily a defensive one.
“They were great all night,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said. “They can all skate. They’re very tenacious. That line is very good at puck possession, especially below the dots. They epitomize the kind of hockey we want to play.
“When the puck is 200 feet from your net, it’s tough for [Nyquist's line] to score. We talked about making them play defense. The best offensive players on every team want to get going. They don’t want to spend that much time in their zone.”
Madsen said it’s how his line has approached games all season.
“That’s been our mentality all year — to attack the other team,” he said. “They can’t score when we’re in their zone. Basically [we] just keep it low and try to cycle it toward the net, try to get some chances, and be ready to come back hard if the puck does get turned over.”
The loss ends Maine’s season. The Black Bears entered the game tied for 16th in the PairWise, and with the loss fell to 19th with additional games still outstanding.
“All the credit to Merrimack,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “They’ve had a tremendous season. They did a great job here and took advantage of home ice.
“The key for us this year was not getting those two points to grab home ice. That really cost us. It could have been a much different series had we been at home. But obviously, they earned it.”
Velleca opened the scoring at 14:01 of the first period shortly after missing an open net on a great feed from Joe Cucci that looked like an automatic goal. The junior made up for it, though. He collected a perfect pass at the blue line from Flanigan, broke in and beat Dan Sullivan for his sixth of the year.
Madsen made it 2-0 at 3:57 of the second. Defenseman Fraser Allan got no assist, but arguably was the key to the goal, keeping the puck in at the blue line so that Sheen and Flanigan could set up Madsen, who beat Sullivan five-hole.
Five minutes later, the Warriors scored on the power play. Stephane Da Costa sent Mike Collins in on Sullivan, who bobbled the shot before it went in.
At 10:52, Maine got one back. Will O’Neill ripped a shot from the right point that clanged off the crossbar and bounced in.
The Warriors retaliated right away though, on a Flanigan breakaway as he came out of the penalty box, collecting a pass from Velleca. Whitehead protested the goal, saying that Flanigan had left early and that his captain had specifically asked the officials at the end of the first period to watch Merrimack players leaving the box or bench early, but the goal stood.
Kyle Beattie almost matched Flanigan, coming out of the box to form a two-on-one but hit the post. The two teams then traded five-on-threes, Merrimack’s coming first, but neither produced results.
Early in the third period, Madsen’s second goal gave the Warriors a seemingly impregnable 5-1 lead and sent Sullivan to the bench. Shawn Sirman replaced him.
Jeff Dimmen scored midway through the period on a shot from left point that eluded Cannata, but Madsen answered with his third off yet another cycling play.