ORONO, Me. — Kyle Beattie’s goal at 12:04 in the second period proved to be the winner Friday night at Alfond Arena, as it provided 10th-ranked Maine with a one-goal lead over No. 14 Merrimack that it did not relinquish, as the Black Bears earned a 2-1 victory in game one of the best of three Hockey East quarterfinal series.
Following a defensive zone turnover by the Warriors, Beattie received a one-touch pass from John Parker at the top of the slot and circled right to the faceoff dot, quickly firing a heavy wrist shot over the glove of Merrimack’s Joe Cannata.
“[John] Parker and I did a little exchange at the top and I was able to come down with a lot of speed and create a two-on-one,” said Beattie. “[Adam] Shemanksy was in front distracting them a little, and I was able to just throw it in over his glove’
“He got that one off quick,” said Cannata. “He came down to my left and beat me upstairs glove-side.”
One goal proved to be the difference in a tightly-fought game where each team’s defense pressured and grinded out the other’s offense for every inch of space, and the offenses struggled to beat two impressive goaltenders.
“It was a hard-fought game, and that’s exactly what we expected,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “A low-scoring and tight-checking game.”
Maine applied heavy pressure from the start, commanding the space they wanted to shoot from and holding possession of the puck as the Warriors chased them, ultimately forcing Merrimack off of its strategy.
The Black Bears controlled the shot column by a dominating 43 shots to 21.
“We were running around and scrambling all night,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. “I didn’t think we played hard enough; that’s not taking anything away from what Maine did, because they did a really good job, but I thought we never executed our game plan till the third.”
Merrimack came to in the third as Maine tired from killing multiple penalties, and the Warriors pushed to even the score in the third as they applied heavy traffic in front of the net, including an extra-attacker opportunity, but just couldn’t find a way to finish their chances or beat Sullivan.
“I don’t think our better players had their best nights, and I thought their players were very good,” said Dennehy. “With the exception of Joe [Cannata], and maybe [Karl] Stollery, I didn’t think our players were our best players tonight. ”
Cannata stayed busy all night, as Maine mustered a staggering 43 shots on goal, but scored just twice, as Cannata turned 41 of the shots away for the Warriors in a clutch performance that earned high praise from Dennehy.
“That’s his job,” he said. “If he’s not the best goalie in the country then I don’t know who it is, I haven’t seen him yet.”
The senior goalie smothered a potent Black Bears offensive attack that included a 17-save second period in which the Black Bears tallied two goals on 19 total shots.
“Our focus on executing the game plan was very strong,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “We didn’t get frustrated, in spite of a lot of good stops from Cannata, and we just kept working and stuck to the game plan.”
Merrimack broke into the goal column first on a power play after Maine’s Jon Swavely was handed a five-minute major and a game-misconduct for contact to the head elbowing as he attempted to check Shawn Bates.
The Warriors squandered away the first four minutes of the power play to turnovers, and Maine appeared to be gaining momentum from its penalty kill when the Warriors finally broke the ice with the man advantage on a blast by Mike Collins.
After failing to let loose his shot attempt on the top left portion of the slot, Conner Toomey fed the puck to a wide open Collins just underneath the inner right hash mark. Collins fired a laser over Sullivan’s glove hand, giving Merrimack the 1-0 lead heading into the first intermission.
Cannata shut down multiple quality scoring chances to begin the second period, but Maine tied it at one 7:50 into the second period on a strong breakaway finish from Joey Diamond.
Spencer Abbott picked up the puck for the Black Bears on the defensive blue line, and immediately wheeling around he slipped a perfect pass between two Merrimack forecheckers in the neutral zone that found a streaking Joey Diamond wide open at the attacking blue line. Diamond carried the puck into the slot, head-faked left, and in the same motion roofed a shot over Cannata’s glove as he caught the keeper leaning the other way.
Beattie added the game-winning goal just 4:14 seconds later in the second period to make it 2-1 Maine, a score that did not change.
Sullivan stopped 20 shots and improved his record to 20-8-3 on the season. Cannata falls to 16-11-7 in the 41 save effort.
The two teams square off in game two of the series on Saturday at Alfond Arena at 7 p.m.