ORONO, Me. — Maine has a date in Boston.
After Merrimack forced a game three Sunday night, the Black Bears took an early lead and never looked back, winning the series-deciding game by a score of 2-1.
Spencer Abbott’s goal started the scoring in the first and defender Brice O’Connor provided the game-winner in the second period.
Ryan Flanigan scored the lone goal for the Warriors.
“I thought we played well at times, obviously not well enough,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. “We put ourselves in some tough positions, but this group is resilient.”
The Black Bears advance to the Hockey East semifinals Friday night when they take on Boston University. Providence and Boston College is the other semifinal matchup.
“I thought we executed our game plan well,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “We knew it wouldn’t come easy, but we kept pushing. Merrimack did a great job and they would not quit, but neither would we.”
After a penalty-filled contest Friday night, bad blood was expected in the series finale. While the game still had a handful of penalties and a little scrum in the second period, the 15 total penalties Sunday night was far away from Saturday’s 50.
Abbott got the scoring started on a five-on-three advantage after Connor Toomey was called for hitting after the whistle and Brendan Ellis for hitting from behind. With seconds left in the two-man advantage, Abbott received the puck from Adam Shemansky and sniped it past Joe Cannata.
“The draw went back to [defender Will O'Neill] and he passed it to me,” Abbott said. “I gave it to Shemansky, who tried to go through the crease, but it was blocked and he fired it back to me and I was cocked and fired and went low with it.”
Little action occurred throughout the rest of the opening period, as Cannata stopped 11 shots and Dan Sullivan stopped all eight in the first period.
The Black Bears took a two-goal lead early in the second period after an odd-man rush. The Black Bears went on the attack and ended it with O’Connor’s third goal of the season.
“I just went down hard to the net and [defender Nick Pryor] got the puck on the net quick and it was just sitting there and I put it in,” O’Connor said.
Pryor and Abbott picked up the assists.
Midway through the second period, the Warriors cut the deficit in half after Flanigan scored his 11th goal of the season. Off a faceoff, Flanigan controlled the puck and beat Sullivan.
The Warriors had a great opportunity to tie things up in the second period, but a sprawling save by Sullivan preserved the lead on a wrap-around shot by Mike Collins.
“I just got there,” Sullivan said. “I went down on the right post and he was quick to get to the other side and I just stuck my pad out and it got the tip.”
It looked as though Maine regained their two-goal lead, but the goal was waved off after a review showed that the puck was kicked in by a Maine player. Whitehead was impressed by the Black Bears’ resiliency.
“We’ve continued to be impressed with this group’s focus and execution,” he said. “We’ve had our back against the wall since Thanksgiving and the guys keep responding.”
After the disallowed goal, a brief scrum broke out before the center-ice faceoff, resulting in seven penalties for five different players.
The third period saw no scoring, but each team continued to pressure the other. Maine troubled the Warriors by refusing to let them gain any momentum on their offense.
“I thought they forechecked well early and we had to kill a lot [of penalties],” Dennehy said. “That expended some energy. Maine puts a lot of pressure on you.”
Merrimack pulled Cannata with over a minute left and compiled a barrage of shots toward Sullivan, but the sophomore goalie and the Black Bears managed to keep the net clean and pick up the win.
“Our guys were just playing our brand of hockey and it makes my job that much easier,” Sullivan said.
“We stuck to our game plan,” Abbott said. “There was no talking before the game in the locker room; we all knew what we had to do.”
With the loss, it’s most likely that Merrimack’s season is over. Maine lives another day and most likely secured a berth in the national tournament as well as a trip to the TD Bank Garden for the Hockey East semifinals next Friday.