NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — With both teams on two-game losing streaks, the Vermont Catamounts and No. 5 Merrimack Warriors each looked to get back on the winning track with two Hockey East points up for grabs Wednesday night.
Despite surges of confidence from Vermont, Merrimack secured the 5-2 victory on their home ice to improve their record to 10-2-1 and 7-2-1 in Hockey East, while Vermont falls to 3-11-1 and 1-9-1 Hockey East.
“I know that moral victories don’t mean much, especially to our guys because they’re tired of losing, but I thought we played our hearts out tonight,” said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon.
The first few minutes of the first period were very fast-paced with each team trying to out-skate and out-hit the other.
Merrimack got their first power-play opportunity two-and-a-half minutes in, but failed to convert with the Catamounts doing a nice job to keep Merrimack on the perimeter to settle for long range shots for goaltender Rob Madore to stop.
Merrimack struck the twine first at 6:55 with Jeff Velleca going one-on-one with Michael Paliotta and beating him with a Rick Nash-like outside-inside circus move and then beating Madore for the shorthanded goal to put Merrimack in front, 1-0.
Despite Velleca’s shorthanded goal, Vermont continued to have good power-play movement, but Merrimack did a better job to sacrifice their bodies to block shots for goaltender Joe Cannata.
Merrimack had multiple quality chances in the latter half of the period, but good positioning from Madore forced the shots to sail just wide or into his pads to keep the deficit at only a goal.
The entire first 10 minutes of the second period belonged to Merrimack, with the Warriors owning possession of the puck, preventing turnovers, and getting the puck deep.
The Warriors’ strong play led to a goal with Velleca firing a long-range drive from the point that trickled through Madore’s pads for his second goal of the night and a 2-0 lead.
Nothing went right for Vermont until 11:48 when two Merrimack penalties put the Catamounts on a five-on-three power play.
“It’s always good to get a win in Hockey East. Period,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. “We are very confident in our penalty kill, but we have to be much smarter with our penalties.”
The Catamounts took advantage and pinned the Warriors’ defense down in front of Cannata by working the puck as close to the crease as possible.
The effort was too much as Drew MacKenzie zipped the puck cross-ice to Kyle Reynolds, who roofed the puck top-shelf past Cannata for a 2-1 score at 12:35.
The goal caused a full momentum shift with a surged Catamounts team pressuring the Warriors and possessing the puck.
Cannata kept the score tied when a bad bounce off a stanchion found Reynolds in the slot, but Cannata’s blocker denied him his second goal of the night.
Vermont was in control until 16:13 of the second period when Velleca stole the puck in the slot and got the puck to Justin Mansfield on the doorstep to shove the puck past Madore for a 3-1 lead going into the third period.
“As an athlete, you don’t like to have that lingering loss just sitting there all week, so playing on Wednesday and getting back out there helped us out a lot,” said Mansfield.
Sebastian Stalberg put the Catamounts within one goal at 9:43 with a blast from the high-slot beating Cannata for a 3-2 score.
Seconds later, Colin Markison appeared to tie the game, but an official review reversed the decision to keep the score at 3-2.
Merrimack took advantage of the break at 14:19 when a Carter Madsen won a battle along the boards and slipped the puck to Mansfield, who got in close and slipped the puck five-hole past Madore for a 4-2 lead.
Just 15 seconds later at 14:34, Connor Toomey snuck behind the net, received the pass, and slipped the puck past Madore’s short side pad to increase the score to 5-2 Merrimack.
With the net empty and two minutes left, Vermont had a 6-on-3 advantage, but solid defensive play from Merrimack and clutch saves by Cannata fended off the late surge to preserve the victory for Merrimack.