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College Hockey:
Nieto’s three-point night leads Boston University over Merrimack

— Coming into tonight’s game, No. 17 Merrimack had a 4-1-1 record in February and a 8-3-1 record in 2013.

Meanwhile, No. 19 Boston University was 1-5-1 this month and had not won a home game since Jan. 4.

Yet Tuesday night, the Terriers came out and dominated the Warriors early, scoring the first five goals en route to a satisfying 5-2 win in front of 2,953 at Agganis Arena.

The Terriers’ second line of Matt Nieto, Evan Rodrigues and Danny O’Regan dominated offensively, combining for three goals and three assists. Defensemen Sean Escobedo and Matt Grzelcyk added two assists apiece for the victors, while defenseman Jordan Heywood scored both goals for Merrimack.

As a result of this game as well as tonight’s 4-2 Massachusetts-Lowell win over Boston College, there are only two points separating first place and sixth place in Hockey East. BC, UNH, Providence and UMass-Lowell are in a four-way tie for first with 28 points, while Merrimack has 27 and BU has 26. All six teams have just four games left to play.

“We talked about ‘Hey, we’ve got four out of five games at home at the end of the season here,’” BU coach Jack Parker said. “‘If you want to make home ice, you’re going to have win these games and if you don’t win these games, we don’t want home ice if you can’t win at home.’”

“We’re one point out of first with four left,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said. “Couldn’t be more excited.”

Dennehy was less than excited with his team’s play in the first period.

BU came out looking sharp and focused, outshooting the Warriors by a 12-4 margin in the early going.

Rodrigues gave the Terriers the lead halfway through the first period on a great individual effort. The right wing picked up the puck in the neutral zone on the right-wing side before challenging Heywood one-on-one as he drove to the net. Working his way to the opposite wing, he fought off Heywood before backhanding a shot home against the grain.

BU made it 2-0 on another nice goal less than two minutes later. Captain Wade Megan sold the shot from the point before faking it, going around a defenseman and beating goalie Sam Marotta with a glove-side wrist shot.

At 15:41, BU scored again. Grzelcyk shot from the point and the rebound caromed to Nieto with his back to the net. The junior wheeled, firing blindly in the general direction of the net. The puck bounced off of Cason Hohmann’s skate and went in.

Asked what he said to his team between periods, Dennehy declined to specify his language.

“I don’t have a very broad vocabulary and my daughters listen to the podcast, so I probably shouldn’t repeat it,” Dennehy said.

In contrast, the outpouring of offense was an overdue treat for his counterpart.

“The puck just jumped in the net for us,” Parker said. “This was almost the opposite of what happened to us on Saturday night at Lowell, where we got some good chances, but their goalie made some big saves. We haven’t been getting any puck bounces and we got a few tonight.”

With Rasmus Tirronen replacing Marotta in goal for the Warriors in the second period, the Terriers went up 4-0 in on another pretty goal. O’Regan drove in hard on the right-wing side, drawing two defenders toward him before curling the puck between them to tee up net for a lunging shot and goal.

Later in the period, Escobedo threaded a 75-foot pass through traffic to spring Nieto for a breakaway. Nieto opted to shoot early and beat Tirronen high glove side.

BU continued to play well into the third period before letting down for the last 12 minutes. On a power play, Heywood beat BU goalie Matt O’Connor with a high wrist shot from the point to make it 5-1 and then Heywood was completely unmarked in the slot less than two minutes later for another wrist shot and goal.

From there, Merrimack spent much of the last seven minutes in the penalty box.

Asked about all the penalties his team took late in the game, Dennehy objected.

“We don’t take any penalties,” he said. “They call them.”

For BU (15-14-2, 12-9-2 Hockey East), there was plenty to like tonight.

“As I told my team, it was nice to get a ‘W,’” Parker said. “It was nice to get a ‘W’ at home. It was nice to get some goals. I liked our team tonight. A lot of guys played really well. In general, it was a solid effort against a very good team.”

For Merrimack (14-12-6, 12-8-3), it was the same old refrain against BU this season, as the Warriors were swept and outscored by a 12-4 margin in the three-game series.

“I think they’ve done a pretty good job against us,” Dennehy said. “They’ve gotten a lot of easy goals against us, which we don’t usually give up. And they’re very difficult to score against – at least we found it that way. Maybe we just bring out the best in them.”

BU hosts Vermont twice this weekend before finishing with a home-and-home against Northeastern.

“I think we knew the importance of this game and all the rest of the games this year are important to us heading into the playoffs,” Nieto said. “We’re working hard in practice and we knew what we’ve got to do to win the rest of the way here.”

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