NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Ladies and gentleman, your first-place Merrimack Warriors.
Connor Toomey put the rebound of a Jordan Heywood shot into the open net to give Merrimack a 2-1 overtime win over Boston College. The power-play goal came with just 34 seconds remaining in the extra session.
With the win, the team projected by Hockey East coaches to finish eighth in the league took over the top spot in the standings. No previous Merrimack team since the program’s move to Division I has found itself in the enviable spot so late in the season.
“In a lot of people’s minds, we’re not a powerhouse of the league,” Toomey said. “[They] think in terms of the BCs and BUs. But the 30 guys in our locker room know we can play with any team in the league.
“We believe in ourselves. We truly believed tonight that we could win.
“First place feels pretty nice. It’s where we want to be.”
Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy had some fun with the milestone, then took the larger view.
“It’s better than the alternatives,” he quipped.
Then Dennehy turned serious.
“That’s not our goal,” he said. “Our goal isn’t to be first in the league on the 15th of February. It’s to be No. 1 in the league in March.
“Having said that, you’re moving in the right direction if you’re up and around that No. 1 spot in mid-to-late February.
Warrior goaltender Sam Marotta stopped 39 of 40 shots, while at the other end, Parker Milner stopped 40 of 42.
Merrimack is now 7-1-1 in its last nine games, including four wins over nationally-ranked opponents – two over fifth-ranked New Hampshire and single wins over fourth-ranked BC and 14th-ranked Massaschusetts-Lowell.
Before the game, BC announced that forward Kevin Hayes had been suspended indefinitely for breaking team rules. Fourth on the team in scoring, the 6-foot-3, 213-pound junior added size for a team with its share of smaller players.
“I’ll watch how he comes back from it and I’ll determine when he’s eligible to play for us again,” BC coach Jerry York said.
As a result, Boston College lost a key player, the game and first place in Hockey East.
“It was a playoff-type atmosphere,” York said. “Both goaltenders were outstanding. I liked our compete level. We’d like to have capitalized on some of our good scoring chances, but the goalies won that battle with saves to counter the scoring chances.”
Merrimack held a healthy advantage in the first period, building shot advantages of 6-1 and 12-2, but during its best chances, Milner came through. Toomey enjoyed the best opportunities early after he stole the puck down low and forced two strong saves at the doorstep.
Although BC rallied late in the period, the game remained scoreless going into the second.
Brendan Ellis hit the post in the opening minute while on the power play, but Milner remained perfect.
The Eagles finally put a goal up on the scoreboard, but needed video replay to do it. Quinn Smith capitalized on a scrum in front of the net, but the goal wasn’t originally signaled. Only after the whistle and a long video review were the Eagles awarded the goal and 1-0 lead.
Smith, who’d failed to record a single point over the first 20 games, has now scored five goals and added three assists in the last seven games.
In the opening minute of the third, Marotta stopped a Johnny Gaudreau breakaway to keep the Warriors within one. Four minutes later, Shawn Bates beat Milner five-hole in close, but Steven Whitney cleared the loose puck out of the crease.
At 12:57, however, Milner couldn’t stop John Heffernan from the left faceoff circle on a faceoff play.
Bates followed with what could have been the game-winner. His shot from the left board trickled through Milner’s pads, but just sat in the crease until a defender cleared it away.
Early in the overtime, Milner gave the five-hole and then took it away on a partial break by Josh Myers. The BC goaltender was not that fortunate, however, when Merrimack went on its ninth power play with 53.3 seconds remaining in overtime.
It would take the Warriors less than 20 seconds to send the capacity crowd home, delighted with Toomey’s fourth of the year.