NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — New Hampshire came into Lawler Arena Friday night looking to send the sellout Merrimack crowd home unhappy.
The No. 4 team in the country has been a less-than-stellar 3-3-0 to start their second half and it showed tonight. Merrimack came out strong, looking confident that they could play with the some of the best competition Hockey East and Division I hockey has to offer.
After taking a brief 2-1 lead in the second, UNH allowed two unanswered Merrimack goals. The game-winner came from freshman Brian Christie, who started the third period by winning the opening faceoff, driving the middle and netting a marker through a defender’s legs just seven seconds into the final frame from captain Jordan Heywood and junior Mike Collins.
Collins and Christie both finished with three points on the night and Merrimack held the Wildcats scoreless for the remaining 19:53, winning 3-2.
“I didn’t even see it go in,” remembered Christie. “Fortunately, it did.”
Both goaltenders, junior Sam Marotta for Merrimack and junior Jeff Wyer for UNH, played tremendously throughout the game, as each offense took turns peppering the respective goalies with shots on goal.
Through 19 minutes in the first, the score was still locked at zero. Great pressure from a lightning-quick Merrimack line change would change that, though, as Collins netted his 12th of the season on a snipe from the right side through traffic. Christie and sophomore Quinn Gould got the assists on the play.
UNH responded quickly in the second, as it picked a few passes of its own in the neutral zone, setting up a couple nice offensive sets. With a bouncy puck flying all over the ice, one shot finally found the back of the net just before a sprawling Marotta could get to it. Junior Eric Knodel was credited for the goal from senior Austin Block and junior Nick Sorkin.
Only six short minutes later, UNH took their first lead of the game at 2-1 when sophomore Casey Thrush sunk one five-hole on Marotta from senior captain Connor Hardowa. UNH hardly had time to celebrate though, as just 32 ticks later, Collins found the back of the net again to knot the score at 2-all. Christie and Gould got the apples on this one, as well.
“Right after we took that lead, the most important shift is the next one to get it back down in their zone,” reflected Knodel. “But unfortunately, we were unable to do that and they got the momentum right back. Just something we need to work on.”
“No one came to me, so I just skated around the other side of the net and flipped it over his shoulder,” said a very even-keeled Collins, describing his game-tying second goal of the game.
Even-keeled is the attitude for the Warriors, who have no time to celebrate as they head to Manchester tomorrow to take on UNH again at the Verizon Center.
“We worked really well down low in the corners today and it paid off,” said Christie. “Now, [the team needs to] stay even-keeled. We’ve got to refocus [with] another game tomorrow.”
Despite a deadly first line that is finally clicking, defense was the key for the Warriors tonight, blocking 14 shots in front of Marotta, who Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said “has taken his game to another level.”
“He knows the most important shot is the next one, but he’ll also be the first one to tell you these guys are playing pretty hard in front of him as well,” said Dennehy.
Blocking shots is something his defense takes pride in, Dennehy noted, calling it “Merrimack hockey” and “part of the culture” of his team.
Dennehy was pleased with his team’s performance and how they’ve come together recently, although he’s not exactly surprised.
“Tonight’s a snap shot,” Dennehy said. “I’ve liked how this team has been progressing all year long. We’re not done yet, we can still get a lot better, but tonight, it was enough.”