NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — The No. 6 Merrimack Warriors and New Hampshire Wildcats clashed inside Lawler Rink in their first meeting of the 2011-12 season Friday night.
With two crucial conference points up for grabs, the Warriors were looking to catch Boston College and Boston University for first place in Hockey East, while UNH is trying to hang on in the standings for a playoff seed.
Holding onto a 2-1 lead in the third, the Wildcats did well to minimize turnovers and make the Warriors earn every inch of their ice as the clock worked against the Warriors and the Wildcats escaped with a 2-1 win.
“We defended well again tonight, so it’s another 60-minute game that I was pleased with the way the guys defended,” said UNH coach Dick Umile.
UNH’s defensive core, led by the top paring of Connor Hardowa and Damon Kipp, played sound and fundamental defense protecting freshman goaltender Casey DeSmith and getting good stick position to break up the attack and block shots.
“They’ve got great stick skills and they won a lot of puck battles,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. “And if you don’t really get over the puck, they just strip you. It’s what they do and we didn’t do a good enough job of winning those battles.”
For UNH, the strong defensive effort was enough to secure the victory, improves to 9-11-2 overall (6-8-1 HE) and grab a firm hold over eighth place in Hockey East, one point shy of seventh place.
Merrimack loses the opportunity to get into the race for first place for the time being and falls to 12-5-5 (8-4-3 HE).
“Obviously it was a great win for us,” said Umile. “But I told the team they played a real gritty game and that’s how they won.”
Both teams opened with a fast-paced tempo with both teams battling to get territorial control of the neutral zone.
Merrimack capitalized on a few sloppy UNH turnovers and DeSmith was called on to stop chances by Josh Myers and Ryan Flanigan.
Hockey East’s top scorer, Stevie Moses, had a couple of early chances on Merrimack goaltender Joe Cannata, but the defensive pair of Kyle Bigos and Brendan Ellis twice checked him off the puck.
Just when it seemed when Merrimack was in full control with the Warriors getting the puck deep and winning most of the battles along the boards, the Wildcats aired the puck out of their own zone and the landing puck bounced past defenseman Mike Wills.
With Grayson Downing already in pursuit, he sped past Wills and sold the forehand enough to slip the puck between Cannata’s pads and give UNH a 1-0 lead at 13:23.
On a UNH power play 28 seconds later at 13:51, a Brett Kostolansky net drive and a solid deflection from Moses doubled the UNH lead to 2-0 in the first period.
“We knew that Cannata is a great goalie and we wanted to take away his eyes, so I stood in front of the net and I was able to redirect it past him,” said Moses.
The Wildcats controlled most of the play for the second period, outshooting the Warriors 18-3, and getting five power plays, but Cannata stayed poised and quick and found a way to stop the entire barrage of pucks that the Wildcats threw at him.
“I thought we played one good period of hockey and you’re not going to beat anybody doing that,” said Dennehy.
The Warriors were finally able to generate an odd-man rush and capitalize with Carter Madsen getting the puck in the attacking zone and dropping it back to Flanigan while using himself as a screen.
Flanigan’s screen shot beat DeSmith to the high glove-side to make the score 2-1 at 11:28 of the second period to give the Warriors a chance to tie the game in the third period, which the Warriors weren’t able to do on this night.