BOSTON — The Merrimack Warriors now stand as the last unbeaten team in the nation as the Warriors roared back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat the Northeastern Huskies 3-2 in overtime Saturday night on a shorthanded goal by senior Ryan Flanigan.
“I’m very proud of the effort tonight,” said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy. “I thought our guys played better as the game went on. Northeastern puts a lot of pressure on you. They did early, for sure, and we responded.”
The goal not only extended Flanigan’s points streak to 15 straight games, but also gave Dennehy his 79th victory with Merrimack, surpassing Chris Serino for the school’s all-time Divison I wins mark.
The game would head to overtime with the Huskies on the power play after a penalty for high sticking was called on Kyle Bigos with 1.7 seconds left in regulation. But with only seconds left on the power play, the puck bounced off the stick of a Northeastern player in the offensive end and landed at the blade of Rhett Bly.
Bly then flipped it in the air to a streaking Flanigan, who buried the breakaway opportunity, capping the come-from-behind victory.
“Our guys block a lot of shots and can really frustrate,” said Dennehy. “You get a blocked shot, one guy going the wrong way, and I don’t think it’s anything we necessarily draw up. It’s just some good instincts. Great flip by (Bly) there. I didn’t see (Flanigan’s) celebration, but he finished it off pretty nice.”
Northeastern (1-5-2) controlled the tempo for most of the first period, although they were outshot, 8-5. Sloppy play by Merrimack (7-0-1) in their transition game created a turnover at their defensive blue line.
Northeastern’s Joseph Manno skated the puck in, getting close to Merrimack goalie Joe Cannata. Manno drew Cannata to the left side of the net before passing it to Mike McLaughlin on the left wing, who was able to bury it into the back of the net for the first goal of the game.
Less than four minutes later, McLaughlin was in the mix again. After corralling an airborne puck in the neutral zone, he outskated a Merrimack player and brought it deep into the Merrimack end, before passing it to a wide-open Rob Dongara on the left wing. Dongara faked left, then took the puck right and snuck it past the outstretched pads of a sprawled out Cannata for a 2-0 Husky lead.
Momentum shifted quickly in favor of Merrimack when Josh Manson was called for a hit from behind at 14:22 in the period, resulting in a five-minute major and subsequent 10-minute game misconduct.
Merrimack spent the following five minutes searching for a flaw in Northeastern’s defense. A chunk of the penalty was spent on the sticks of Flanigan, Karl Stollery and Mike Collins as they controlled the puck up at the blue line. Northeastern goalie Chris Rawlings was forced to make two quick saves off deflections by Jesse Todd, who had camped out in front of the netminder.
Northeastern had killed off nearly all Merrimack’s power play when the Warriors, who had entered the game with the nation’s 19-best power play, scored with 47 seconds left on the man advantage with a quick wrist shot by Mike Collins. His fourth goal of the season from Stollery cut Northeastern’s lead in half.
“In tonight’s game, I thought for the first 12 minutes of the game we had a pretty good rhythm,” said Northeastern head coach Jim Madigan. “Then we took a bad penalty and we got out of our rhythm.”
The second period was a defensive stalemate.
Stollery gained a cross-checking penalty at 0:51 in the second as he put Vinny Saponari into the boards. A hooking penalty on Brendan Ellis 16 seconds later gave the Huskies a 5-on-3 power play for well over 90 seconds.
The Huskies could not find the back of the net on the power play, with their best chance coming on a slap shot by Saponari that just missed sneaking under the crossbar. The team spent most of the power play chasing the puck into their defensive end as Merrimack’s defense stood strong.
Merrimack continued to build on the pressure from the end of the first period. There were several great scoring chances by Bly, Jeff Velleca and Kyle Singleton, but Northeastern’s defense answered the call, and as the siren sounded on the second period, the score remained 2-1.
The third period was dominated by missed opportunities. Early in the period, Bigos sent the puck the length of the ice to a wide-open Connor Toomey, but Toomey couldn’t handle the hot pass in front of the net.
On the other side of the ice, Northeastern earned a prolonged power play as Carter Madsen took a five-minute major for hitting from behind. The Huskies, however, would squander the opportunity, earning very few shots on net.
With 9:30 left in the frame, Collins sent a wrist shot past Rawlings from almost the exact same place as his first tally of the night. The goal, assisted by Stollery and Jordon Heywood, knotted the game up at 2-2.
The shorthanded goal capped off a miserable night for the Husky special teams. The team went 0-for-7 on the power play, while allowing two Merrimack power-play goals on four power-play opportunities one night after stifling one of the nation’s best power play units.
“Our power play has been struggling to get the right guys, but when you’re struggling, frustration sets in, and certainly that’s happened,” said Madigan. “Sticks are a little tighter, the way they’re touching them, and the puck movement isn’t as fluid. We were a little rigid because you look at the percentage, and you know we’re struggling on the power play, so it’s something that we have to get better at.
“You win in this league when your specialty teams outplay the other. For us, it’s not a matter of personnel, it’s a matter of executing and not executing.”
Northeastern looks to right the ship as they face Hockey East powerhouse and national No. 1 Boston College at Kelley Rink next Friday, while Merrimack will spend their Friday evening at Agganis Arena as they take on Boston University. Both games begin at 7 p.m. EST.