BOSTON — It’s the kind of game that can sneak up on you, especially considering the timing – early-October, on a Wednesday night.
For Merrimack, it meant a short turnaround after upsetting Union on the road four days prior. For Northeastern, its home opener arrived just three days before an highly-anticipated homecoming game against Boston College on Saturday.
Despite the awkward timing, the Huskies were ready to go from the outset and stormed away to a first-period lead that proved to be insurmountable, beating the Warriors 4-2 in front of 1,350 at Matthews Arena.
Each side had its fair share of fits and starts typical of an early-season game. After a dominant first period for Northeastern, Merrimack rebounded by increasing their physical play and frustrating the Huskies’ defense, drawing several penalties in the process. But in the end, Merrimack could not capitalize on late opportunities, including a power play within the final three minutes of regulation, dropping the first game of the conference schedule.
The Huskies charged out to a 3-0 lead nine minutes into the first period, taking advantage of a Merrimack team that looked sluggish from the outset.
The first strike came 53 seconds into the game, when freshman Colton Saucerman connected with senior Garrett Vermeersch, who redirected the puck top shelf past junior goalie Rasmus Tirronen. The start was a harbinger of things to come for Merrimack’s defense, which afforded Northeastern’s forwards ample time and space to fire away – and they did just that.
At 4:57, freshman Kevin Roy pushed a lead pass forward to Joseph Manno, who deked twice and potted a backhand shot glove side and into the back of the net.
Capping off the first period onslaught was Roy, who opened his career in blazing fashion. At 8:33 into the period, Roy camped out no more than 10 feet front of the net and one-timed Vinny Saponari’s centering pass from the corner, blasting it past Tirronen’s late glove. Roy, the prized Canadian recruit who attracted tremendous hype in the offseason, immediately jumped into an animated celebration.
“I turned around and saw the biggest smile on his face,” Saponari said after the game with a huge smile of his own. “His eyes just widened and I knew he was going to bury it.”
“I was ready for the pass,” added Roy. “[Saponari] made a really great play and it was an easy goal for me.”
While the goal proved to be the game-winner, Merrimack forced Northeastern to ratchet up the intensity. If Merrimack has shown anything in the last few years under coach Mark Dennehy, it’s a penchant to buckle down and grind. They did just that. A series of penalties to start the second period led to an incredibly physical game, playing to Merrimack’s advantage.
“That’s how we play,” Dennehy said. “It was gritty hockey at both ends; just a typical Merrimack-Northeastern game.”
The Warriors scored 4:20 into the second period to make 3-1 after a broken play developed in front of the Northeastern net. While backchecking, the Huskies’ Braden Pimm took a spill, allowing Quinn Gould to walk to net and slide the puck under senior goalie Chris Rawlings for his first goal of the season.
Justin Mansfield reinforced the comeback bid at 15:08 with an impressive single-handed effort, spinning away from two defensemen and gaining enough space to tuck a shot short-side past Rawlings. The goal capped off a frustrating second period for the Huskies, who were whistled for six penalties and looked flustered heading into the locker room.
“We let it get away from us a little bit and didn’t sustain that pressure,” Northeastern coach Jim Madigan noted.
Despite the resurgence in the latter half of the game, Merrimack never recovered from the first period deficit. The Warriors had two chances on the power play in the final period, yet they were unable to capitalize, denied by an increasingly stingy Huskies’ defense and a key penalty kill leading to an empty-net goal from Robby Vrolyk in the final two minutes of regulation.
The victory was Northeastern’s first in a season-opening game since October 2007 and the early two points were not lost on Madigan, whose team barely missed the playoffs after a spate of early losses last year.
“We’ll take the two points,” Madigan said. “We’ll work on the areas where we need some improvement and get better in those areas, but points early in the season are good.”