BOSTON — After Merrimack’s 4-1 Hockey East semifinal win over New Hampshire on Friday, Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy stated, “I think everybody’s been asking how we would deal with being here for the first time in a while.”
Dennehy humbly observed, “It wasn’t great.”
While the Warriors’ first Hockey East semifinal victory was not its most thrilling or dramatic effort, it is easily the most noteworthy game Merrimack has ever played.
With his sixth goal of the season, a deflection of blueliner Brendan Ellis’s blast from the point at 14:11 in the third period, Warriors winger Elliott Sheen sent Merrimack to its first Hockey East championship game in school history and collected yet another first for a Merrimack squad that is shattering program records at every turn this season.
Aside from earning its first shot at the Lamoriello Trophy Saturday night, the Warriors have set school records for most overall wins in a season (25), most victories in Hockey East (16), and won nine straight games on the road. In addition, No. 7 Merrimack was never ranked before this season and its fourth-place conference finish was a regular season best.
It seemed like the Warriors had a collective case of opening-night jitters, as goaltender Joe Cannata had trouble fielding a soft shot from Wildcats defender Blake Kessel from center ice only 30 seconds into the game. Fortunately for Merrimack, officials reviewed the play and determined that a UNH player was offsides when Kessel scored and revoked the goal.
“Good thing I’m not a shortstop,” Cannata said. “I guess it took a lucky bounce, but we were lucky [UNH] was offsides.”
The Wildcats officially got on the board seven minutes later, moments after the Warriors successfully killed Sheen’s hooking penalty. Set up in the right circle, UNH winger Stevie Moses one-timed a pass from center Mike Borisenok that beat Cannata five-hole at 7:20 in the first period. Moses has been dangerous in the playoffs for the Wildcats, notching goals in both Hockey East quarterfinal games last week against Vermont.
But like most actors’ inaugural appearance on Broadway, the Warriors needed only a few minutes to shake off their stage fright and adjust to the crowd of 16,000 — many of whom were wearing gold — at the TD Garden.
“You get through warmups and get your balance out there and look around and enjoy it,” Sheen said. “But once that puck drops you’re inside that glass and you play.”
With defenseman Karl Stollery in the box for hitting from behind, Merrimack capitalized on the Wildcats’ sloppy power-play unit. After nabbing a UNH turnover at the blue line, Warriors center Stephane Da Costa dished to winger Ryan Flanigan on a two-on-one, and Flanigan potted the short-handed equalizer at 10:47.
“If you get to the playoffs, you aren’t going to win games or have success without success on the power play,” UNH captain Mike Sislo said. “That first goal was a turnover by myself. … And after that, we never really got it set up. This time of year, you can’t win games if you don’t give yourself a chance on the PP.”
It took Merrimack just over five minutes to net the go-ahead goal and a lead it never relinquished. Stollery cycled the puck at the blue line to Ellis, who ripped a blistering one-timer from the left point. Sheen positioned himself perfectly at the crease and tipped Ellis’s shot past UNH netminder Matt DiGirolamo to light the lamp 2-1 at 16:15 in the first frame.
After a scoreless second stanza, Merrimack — which boasted a 29-0-2 record over the past two seasons when leading after two periods before tonight — stoned the Wildcats’ best opportunity to knot the score at 2:15 in the final frame when Cannata stonewalled Moses deep in the slot on a breakaway and stymied center Jeff Silengo and linemate Dalton Speelman in short order.
Although the Warriors did not need a third tally, winger Mike Collins put the nail in UNH’s championship coffin when he took advantage of another Wildcats defensive miscue. With three UNH players down in the crease, along with a spread-eagled DiGirolamo, Collins took a pass from Ellis and shot from behind the net. The puck bounced off of DiGirolamo’s back and found the twine at 14:11, putting the Warriors ahead 3-1.
Sheen made it 4-1 at 19:53 in the final frame with an empty-netter, his second tally of the night.
Merrimack’s quest to add the Hockey East crown to its sparsely decorated trophy shelf goes through conference foe Boston College, against whom the Warriors own a 2-1-0 record in the season series that concluded the day after Thanksgiving.
“I think it’s safe to say we have our hands full,” Dennehy said. “It will be a challenge for our guys … but we’ll get a chance to measure up tomorrow.”