NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — No. 11 Union used tenacious defense, timely goal scoring and solid special teams play on Saturday afternoon to upset No. 5 Merrimack, 3-1.
The Union defense bottled up the neutral zone and blocked 17 Merrimack shots, smothering the Warriors offense and silencing the sellout crowd of 2,489 at Lawler Arena, a place Merrimack has now lost just six times in the past three seasons.
According to Union first-year coach Rick Bennett, it was a game where his team executed its game plan to perfection.
“It’s fun to see some of the stuff that the staff talks about before the game actually executed,” said Bennett. “They were blocking shots and doing the little things, which led to the big things.”
Blocked shots were something that particularly stood out for the Dutchmen. Especially on the penalty kill, Union defenders were very successful at getting in front of shots from the point, frustrating Merrimack, which finished the game 0-for-5 on the power play.
“[Blocking shots] is an individual thing, but at the same token you have people holding those other people responsible,” said Bennett. “It takes a lot of heart to block shots. You have to be willing to pay the price. I thought our guys did that tonight.”
Union took advantage of special teams through the game’s opening 20 minutes to take 1-0 lead into intermission. After killing an early penalty to Kelly Zajac for cross-checking, the Dutchmen received an extended two-man advantage when Merrimack’s Kyle Singleton and Kyle Bigos were each sent off 1:14 apart.
Daniel Carr scored his eighth goal of the season on the five-on-three, pushing home the rebound of Zajac’s shot from the low slot at 13:47 for a 1-0 lead.
“Our five-on-three has struggled of late,” said Carr. “We were getting complicated. Today, we kept it simple and got pucks to the net.”
The second period had two major momentum shifts that each resulted in a goal, one for each team, to give Union a 2-1 lead through two.
After Union had dominated much of the frame, it looked poised to extend the lead when Trevor Mingoia was sent in alone at 14:27, requiring Merrimack goaltender Joe Cannata (31 saves) to make a stellar save. Cannata appeared injured on the play, but stayed in the game.
After the ensuing faceoff, Merrimack’s Shawn Bates picked up a pass from Ryan Flanigan in the neutral zone, skated right to left and let fly a shot that beat Union netminder Troy Grosenick (19 saves) over the glove to knot the game at 15:06.
The Warriors then had their chance to take the lead when Rhett Bly skated alone on a short-handed breakaway. Grosenick stayed with the sophomore and made a right pad save.
Nine seconds later, still on the power play, Union rookie blueliner Shayne Gostisbehere patiently held the puck coming into the zone. Twice he faked a shot while moving to his left. With Cannata moving, he fired a low wrister from the top of the left faceoff circle that beat Cannata at 17:59 to give the Dutchmen back the lead.
Bennett laughed when asked if that double-fake, shot move was something he taught his rookie blueliner.
“To sit here and tell you that we teach that, we don’t,” said Bennett. “That’s a God-given talent.”
From there, Union clamped down on defense and gave Merrimack few third-period scoring chances. Once the Warriors got the goaltender pulled, the Dutchmen did an excellent job of both bottling up the neutral zone and clearing dangerous pucks in the offensive zone.
With one last gasp Merrimack effort, Zajac was able to break up a play and take a pass from Shawn Stuart, firing an 80-foot shot into an empty net with 12 seconds remaining.
The loss for Merrimack is its third in six games since ascending to the top spot in the USCHO.com poll for the first time in school history on November 21. The Warriors have been held to a single goal in four of their last five games, after averaging 3.4 goals a game in their prior 10.
“It’s the ebb and flow of the season,” said a seemingly unconcerned Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. “In games like this, you have to win battles. We didn’t do that well enough tonight.”
Both teams now enter their holiday break. Merrimack (10-3-2, 7-2-1 Hockey East) will participate in the annual Ledyard Classic tournament at Dartmouth, opening against St. Lawrence on December 30. Union (9-3-5, 3-2-2 ECAC) will play two key nonconference road games at Denver and Colorado College on December 30 and 31.