NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — It was all Merrimack.
Until it wasn’t.
And then it was again.
Confused? So was everyone else tonight at Lawler Arena as Merrimack posted a 4-2 win over Army.
After the first period, Merrimack had outshot Army 19-4 and the Warriors were skating figure eights around Army players, winning faceoffs and delivering timely hits to keep possession.
Only three Merrimack players left the ice without an official shot on goal following the opening frame.
“We shrunk the rink quite a bit and moved the puck pretty well,” commented Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. “I like how we played. That first period definitely kind of jump-started us. We were ready to go.”
Merrimack’s offensive attack easily could have led to a three- or four-goal lead had it not been for the “calming influence” of Army sophomore goaltender Rob Tadazak. Instead, the first frame ended scoreless, something that didn’t escape Army coach Brian Riley.
“I think we had the best player [Tadazak] on the ice tonight,” noted Riley. “He kept us in it when he needed to. In that first period, we were under siege, but the good news is we knew we were still in it.”
The game did not remain scoreless much longer, though, as Merrimack freshman Justin Hussar scored his second goal of the season at 4:22.
“It was just laying there for me to put upstairs,” said Hussar.
Senior Brandon Brodhag and junior Kyle Bigos got the assists on the play.
As the second-period horn sounded, Merrimack was outshooting Army 31-13, had won twice as many faceoffs, and seemingly had the game in hand, despite only holding a 1-0 lead.
Just over six minutes into the third, Merrimack extended its lead to 2-0 with almost 50 minutes of hockey in the books when sophomore Clayton Jardine picked a defender’s pocket, got the puck to Bigos, who skated through the remaining defenders, made a pretty pass to junior Shawn Bates on the cut, who dangled and threw the puck in top shelf over Tadazak.
Everything was going Merrimack’s way.
“I think we might’ve gotten them off the bus a little bit,” said Dennehy. “They came up today and we got on ‘em early and kept it rolling.”
Just as the game seemed all but over, Army took control.
Two minutes after Merrimack’s second goal, Army drew a tripping penalty on defenseman Thomas McCarthy. Less than a minute after that, a second penalty was issued to Bigos, giving Army a five-on-three advantage that they quickly capitalized on just 10 seconds later.
Sophomore Mac Lalor found the back of the net on assists from senior Andy Starczewski and freshman Jonathan Gehrt. Army, now with a five-on-four advantage, continued to press and just 37 seconds later, Lalor scored a second time, again from Starczewski and Gehrt.
The Merrimack PA announcer hadn’t even announced the first Army goal before the second was stuffed past Merrimack sophomore goaltender Rasmus Tirronen.
“The first goal is the toughest,” reminded Riley. “Until we get that first goal, there’s that ‘Oh no, are we going to score?’ feeling.”
Dennehy, despite his team’s dominance throughout the first two-and-a-half periods, wasn’t surprised by what happened.
“They tie it up 2-2 because, thankfully, for our country, these guys don’t quit,” said Dennehy. “They keep battling and we knew they would.”
“I’m sure they;re thinking, ‘Holy smokes, we’ve been all over these guys and now they’re back in the game,’” added Riley. “It turned into a 10-minute game.”
Less than a minute after the tide had turned in Army’s favor, Merrimack took it right back.
Army freshman R.J Burns was called for a slash on Tirronen, which McCarthy didn’t take lightly. After putting Burns in a headlock and throwing him to the ground, a scrum ensued. Penalties to both sides were distributed, but Merrimack came out of it all with a power-play chance, much to the pleasure of the Merrimack bench who was loud and banging their sticks the whole time.
“I thought our disposition on the bench was great and it was like, ‘Alright, here we go,’” said Dennehy.
Merrimack freshman Vinny Scotti officially turned the tide back in the Warriors’ favor as he sniped a goal past Tadazak to give Merrimack a lead they would never relinquish. Hussar and sophomore Justin Mansfield were given assists on the play.
Riley pulled his goalie with a minute remaining in regulation, but junior Mike Collins sealed the victory with an empty-netter from just inside the blue line with 3.6 ticks left on the clock.
“We’re certainly proud of the guys,” concluded Riley. “That’s all you can ask that for one, they work as hard as they can and two, they never give up. I thought they did that.”