PROVIDENCE — They say that there are no easy wins in a conference as competitive as Hockey East.
“We wanted the game to be easier,” said Warriors’ coach Mark Dennehy. “We got a lot to work on.”
It took more than the allotted 60 minutes for the No. 1 Merrimack College and Providence College Friars to settle their first tilt Friday night at Schneider Arena in Providence, R.I. The Friars’ Andy Balysky and the Warriors’ Jesse Todd each scored in regulation. In overtime, Ross Mauermann scored at the 1:54 mark to give the Friars the upset win.
The Warriors entered Friday the nation’s lone undefeated team, sitting comfortably atop the national rankings for the second straight week at 9-0-1. The Warriors had not been tested of late, playing once since November 11, a 6-0 win at home against Alabama-Huntsville the night before Thanksgiving.
The Friars entered the game losers of three straight games, including a pair of losses in the Denver Cup Classic over Thanksgiving Day weekend to Miami and Princeton.
“We’ll play well for spurts and then make that big mistake,” said Providence coach Nate Leaman. “We spent the week working on us and not trying to build them [Merrimack] up.”
From the opening faceoff, the Friars were not intimidated by having the nation’s top team in their own barn, and they played like it.
The Warriors jumped to an early advantage in shots, but the Friars chipped away and kept the play in Merrimack’s side of the ice. This play continued into the second period. Most of Merrimack’s chances came on rushes, including several by sophomore Shawn Bates.
“We had plenty of opportunities,” said Dennehy. “I don’t know how many breakaways we had, but when you come up empty on at least three breakaways, that usually doesn’t bode well.”
The scoreless tie was not broken until the final five minutes of the second period. The Friars scored after taking a tripping call by forward Stefan Demopoulos. Balysky netted the short-handed goal with a soft wrist shot from well wide of the right faceoff circle. The short-handed goal was the senior co-captain’s third of the season, and seemed to surprise Merrimack starter Joe Cannata.
Merrimack tied the game with a power-play goal from Todd. The Warriors drew a penalty on Providence’s Derek Army, and Todd connected on a one-time slap shot from the slot. The goal was Todd’s fifth of the season at the 9:01 mark in the third.
The Warriors drew another power play a few minutes later. They managed to hit a post and have Providence running around at times, but could not take the lead. The resulting penalty kill gave the Friars a sense of momentum heading into the game’s final minutes.
The resulting pressure of Providence’s momentum shift drew a penalty on Merrimack’s Clayton Jardine. On the power play, Tim Schaller had a chance in front of the crowded net, but sent his shot wide.
After a big open-ice hit, the teams traded odd-man rushes, but neither could break the tie late in the third.
In overtime, Cannata let a rebound bounce too far out in front and Mauermann put the puck five-hole to seal the win for Providence, the Friars’ first over the No. 1 team since 2003. The game-winner was the fifth of the season for the freshman from Janesville, Wis.
Merrimack, whose power play was ranked ninth in the nation entering Friday, was held scoreless on its first three chances, and held to just seven shots. For the game, they finished one-for-five in the loss.
The Friars were equally as unsuccessful on the man advantage, going 0-for-5 in the contest.
Alex Beaudry started in net for the Friars and made 26 saves in the win. Beaudry was forced to make big saves early on to set the tone against the Warriors’ top-ranked offense.
“If you are going to beat Merrimack, your goalie has to be as good as Cannata,” said Leaman. “He’s the best goaltender I’ve seen on tape in the nation. That’s a big thing [Beaudry's play in net]. You can’t get out-goaltended.”
To this point in the season, Beaudry has been Providence’s go-to goalie, playing in all but one of the teams’ games this season. He entered Friday night with a humbling 3.19 goals against average and 0.891 saves percentage.
Cannata was as good as Beaudry, making 34 saves. Like Beaudry, Cannata is his team’s workhorse in net, starting all but one game for the Warriors, and was entered the contest with a 1.32 goals against average, good for a tie for first in the nation.
In the end, both coaches thought the game was a well-played one, but were adamant that their respective teams still had a lot to work on going into Saturday’s rematch in North Andover, Mass.
“We got tired, which you don’t want in the first game of a two-game series,” said Dennehy. “But I was proud of how our guys battled back. We gave ourselves a chance to win.”