ORONO, Me. — Rhett Bly notched two goals for 14th-ranked Merrimack Saturday night as he and the Warriors powered by the tenth-ranked Blank Bears 5-2 at Alfond Arena in game two of the best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series.
With the victory, Merrimack draws even at one game a piece in the series, forcing a decisive game three Sunday night in Orono.
“When your backs are against the ropes like that, you have to step up your game,” said Bly. “I think everyone in our locker room found their gear tonight.”
Merrimack came out of the gates strong following last night’s self-described poor performance and pressured the Black Bears, stepping up to fill every inch of free space and getting in Maine’s face before and after the whistle.
“I thought we played harder and we did some of the things that worked for us in the third period last night,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said. “We got pucks low and grinded it out a little bit and took care of the puck and got it to the net and that is a big thing. We need to continue to get pucks to the net.”
The Warriors outshot Maine 37-30 and all five of their goals came from beneath the hash marks and close to the crease.
“Credit to Merrimack, they got it done, they had a strategy and it worked,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “They wanted to get our best players in the box and they got it accomplished.”
Both teams combined to take 50 penalties, a single-game Hockey East tournament record, for a total of 184 minutes, including three game misconducts and six ten-minute misconducts.
Merrimack received 98 of the minutes while Maine picked up the other 86 minutes. The Warriors were 1-for-6 with the man advantage, while the Black Bears’ power play unit went 1-for-7.
Of note is the fact that Merrimack defenseman Kyle Bigos and Maine forward Joey Diamond – both key contributors to their respective teams – were each amongst the ejections.
“After every whistle, you try to grab a guy and find a way to bring bring him to the box, ” said Whitehead. “It’s no secret, it’s a good strategy, and it worked – hats off to them.”
Matt Mangene broke into the goal column for Maine early in the first period on a nice individual effort as he buried a shorthanded goal at 3:51 in the first period to give the Black Bears a 1-0 lead.
Working along the left board on the power play Merrimack coughed the puck up into the slot. Mangene gathered the puck and jetted the length of the ice up the left boards around two Warrior defenders and fired a quick wrist shot at the left face-off dot, beating Joe Cannata low to the right side.
Just under two minutes later, at 5:39 in the first, Bly buried the equalizing goal as he stuffed home a rebound that squirted to the far side post were he was waiting, tying the game at 1-1.
The Warriors struck again at 13:33 when Josh Myers finished with a power-play goal on a beautifully-designed faceoff play, giving Merrimack the 2-1 lead.
Connor Toomey won the faceoff and pushed the puck to the right towards the boards where Myers picked up the puck and streaked to the bottom of the circle and squeaked a wrist shot past Dan Sullivan.
Merrimack picked up in the second where it left off in the first as it struck quickly and pushed the game further out of the Black Bears’ reach.
Jeff Valleca extended Merrimack’s lead to 3-1 just two minutes into the second period as he picked up a rebound and chipped it into the back of the net before Sullivan recovered from the original shot.
Mike Collins received the puck on the left point and fired a slap shot into the crowd in front of the net. Sullivan stopped the initial shot and deflected Simon Demers’ attempt at the rebound, but was not quick enough to get up for Valleca’s shot as it beat him to his right side.
The Warriors didn’t let off of the pedal as Bly tallied his second goal just 20 seconds later, increasing Merrimack’s lead to 4-1.
Maine pushed hard in the third period to draw closer as it outshot the Warriors 13-7.
Adam Shemansky capitalized on the power play as he added a goal at 8:03, but 4-2 would be the closest that the Black Bears came to drawing even after Dan Kolomatis put the finishing note on the game for Merrimack as he added an empty-netter at 19:58.
Cannata stopped 28 of the 30 shots he faced and improved to 17-11-7. Sullivan made 32 saves on 37 shots and his record dropped to 20-9-3.
Merimack and Maine will face off at Alfond Arena at 7 p.m. Sunday in the deciding game of the series to determine who will head to the TD Garden next weekend.