College Hockey:
Nieto, Connolly have three-point nights to lead Boston University past Merrimack

— Entering Lawler Arena on the road riding a two-game losing streak, the No. 3 Boston University Terriers took on the No. 4 Merrimack Warriors in a Hockey East matchup with serious playoff implications.

BU’s top-ranked offense in Hockey East at 3.54 goals per game battled against the top-ranked defense of Merrimack, who has allowed a Hockey East conference-low of 2.00 goals per game.

Tonight, the Terriers outplayed the Warriors at both ends of the ice for a 4-1 victory to exceed Boston College and grab a firm hold of first place.

“I thought we were very thorough in all three zones, we were very alert, and when you get four goals on [Merrimack goalie Joe] Cannata, you’ve had a really good night,” said BU coach Jack Parker.

The Terriers improve to 16-8-1 overall (13-6-1 Hockey East), while the Warriors fall to 14-6-5 and 10-5-3 in Hockey East and down to fifth place in the league standings.

BU’s high-powered offense struck early for a 1-0 lead at 1:29 of the first period with 100-plus point-scorer Chris Connolly’s quick release beating Cannata low to the glove side.

The Terriers outplayed the Warriors in the first period, giving Merrimack problems getting out of their own zone, causing turnovers, and owning the better half of puck possession.

Whenever Merrimack was able to generate an attack, BU won most of the one-on-one battles along the boards and snuffed out multiple opportunities.

“We got rattled,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. “I think a team with a long tradition of winning big hockey games came in here ready to win and I think you saw a home team that was unsure.”

Merrimack’s best chance came when Connor Toomey somehow sped past the entire BU defense, but goaltender Kieran Millan closed the pads to make the save.

The Terriers came out on the ice in the second period flat-footed and undisciplined, giving Merrimack a couple of power plays early. BU allowed very little time and space for the Warriors’ power play to make any headway and easily killed the penalties.

BU finally made the Warriors pay for their mistakes on the scoreboard, scoring two goals in 54 seconds to make the hill all the more steep for the Warriors to climb.

The first came at 12:32 when top-scoring Hockey East defenseman Adam Clendening quickly found Sahir Gill at the doorstep, who deflected the puck past a scrambling Cannata for a 2-0 lead.

Clendening’s skill struck again on a perfectly-executed three-on-two with the BU defenseman finding Connolly along the blue line and finishing the play getting the puck to Alex Chiasson, who found the twine to give the Terriers a 3-0 lead at 13:26.

“I thought BU had some big time efforts from some big time players and their best players were the best players on the ice from the get go,” said Dennehy.

Despite two more power-play chances for the Warriors, the BU defense made life very easy for Millan, who mostly only had to stop long-range routine shots and clear the rebounds.

Despite getting into desperation mode in the third period, the Warriors still could not beat the Terriers in the physicality department.

“Merrimack is a very difficult team to outwork and I thought we at least matched their work ethic, if not a little better,” said Parker.

The Warriors did get off a few quality chances, but Millan was able to make the initial save with no rebound.

At 14:29 of the third period, Matt Nieto, who recorded three assists, passed the puck to Connolly, who skated unopposed across the slot to beat Cannata to the far post for a 4-0 lead.

Millan’s shutout bid was spoiled at 18:18 of the third period when Toomey got into the BU zone uncontested and found Mike Collins, who beat Millan to make the score 4-1 before the final buzzer sounded.

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