NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Looking to finish the regular season on a high note in preparation for the Hockey East quarterfinals, the No. 12 Merrimack Warriors took on the Massachusetts Minutemen, who had a chance to grab the seventh seed with a victory.
The Minutemen were able to hold off a frustrated Merrimack offense for most of the third period with good stick and body positioning defensively, holding a 2-1 lead, but collapsing and letting Merrimack skate away with a 5-3 win.
Merrimack finally got its chance midway through the third period on a power play and capitalized with Connor Toomey speeding through the UMass defense and slipping the puck to Josh Myers, who tied the game 2-2 at 10:28.
“Penalties were a big part of the evening,” said UMass coach Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon, “We started the third period taking a penalty and that set the tone for the rest of the evening.”
Four minutes later at 14:53, Kyle Singleton worked behind the net and pushed the puck out to the crease for a waiting Shawn Bates, who buried the puck past freshman goaltender Steve Mastalerz to gain a 3-2 lead.
The Warriors increased the lead to 4-2 at 16:22 when Ryan Flanigan gathered the puck for a three-on-one rush and ripped the puck top shelf.
The Minutemen refused to go away quietly and at 17:33, Danny Hobbs crashed the net off a Michael Pereira net drive to jam the puck in the twine.
With the UMass net empty, the Warriors defensively held their zone and Rhett Bly sent the puck into the open net with only seconds left to seal the 5-3 victory.
“Tonight didn’t have much flow for either team, but my guys stuck it out and got it done,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy.
Merrimack holds the No. 5 seed and will be on the road versus fourth-seeded Maine next weekend. UMass has the eighth seed and will be on the road against top-seeded Boston College.
“Maine is a great atmosphere to play in,” said Bates. “We know that they’re going to be coming for us, but there’s nothing more fun than playing in a packed house.”
Merrimack grabbed an early 1-0 lead at 3:21 when the Warriors’ top line of Flanigan, Jeff Velleca and Jesse Todd set up a perfect triangle.
The passing play ended with Todd at the top of the crease for an easy wrist shot into a wide-open short side.
“Mark [Dennehy] has done a great job and I’m pleased for him and his team is as good as anybody,” said Cahoon.
Merrimack’s defensive pairs were at times too attack-minded and out of defensive position, eventually resulting into a two-on-one for Patrick Kiley and Troy Power which goaltender Joe Cannata was called upon to stop.
Things were looking worse for the Minutemen when the Warriors were given a five-minute power play after Rocco Carzo was sent to the box for boarding.
The Warriors nearly capitalized when Toomey zipped a perfect cross-ice to Singleton, but the post robbed the freshman forward from point-blank range.
UMass’ speed came into play again when Conor Sheary accelerated past Kyle Bigos for a breakaway, but Cannata again kept the Minutemen off the board.
Merrimack’s luck finally ran out when UMass’ top scorer, T.J. Syner, got loose behind the defense and roofed the puck over Cannata’s blocker to tie the game 1-1 with six seconds left in the first period to grab some momentum.
With Merrimack on the power play again at 11:03 of the second period, Mastalerz made huge saves stopping both Mike Collins and Toomey from the slot.
With Flanigan in the box for boarding with three minutes left in the second period, the Minutemen generated consistent puck movement and pressure on Cannata who did well to stay square.
The effort paid off when Steven Guzzo from the dot put the puck net, which trickled through Cannata to give the Minutemen a 2-1 lead with 30 seconds remaining before the start of the third period.