CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — On a night where hope seemingly sprung eternal for Merrimack, only the game’s final buzzer allowed the Boston College Eagles to quash such hope.
Despite being territorially outplayed for much of the game Wednesday, No. 14 Merrimack trailed the Eagles 2-1 late in the third despite falling behind by two goals entering the period and having a BC insurance marker disallowed after the Warriors climbed within one.
But a Jace Hennig shot from low in the slot with 1:24 remaining may have been the best shot Merrimack had to tie the game. The rookie forward, however, fired the shot into the breadbasket of BC netminder Thatcher Demko to preserve No. 19 Boston College’s 2-1 victory.
A suffocating BC defense that blocked a number of shots in the game’s final minutes was a major difference-maker.
“Thatcher [Demko] has been unbelievable, so any time we can get in a lane and block shots and help him, we do the best we can,” said Eagles defenseman Steve Santini, playing in his fourth game back after missing 16 games with a wrist injury. “We don’t want to go out there and block every single shot because sometimes that can be counterproductive. At the same time, in five-on-six situations, it’s very important to pick up [opponent’s] sticks and get in the lanes.”
Hopes were high, and rightfully so, for Merrimack entering the game. Despite having not won at Boston College since October 1997, Wednesday marked the first time in the 90 meetings between the two schools in which Merrimack was ranked ahead of the Eagles in the national polls.
But the Eagles (14-8-2, 7-5-2 Hockey East) appeared to be the better team on Wednesday, despite how close the final score made the game seem.
“I don’t feel like we really established our play until the third period,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. “We played pretty good defensively but I didn’t think we executed well enough on our breakouts, especially in the second period when through the rink we weren’t very good.”
Still, trailing 2-0 in the third, an early power play led to a Merrimack score. Hennig potted his seventh goal of the season, finishing a nice feed from Hampus Gustafsson at 2:05.
Boston College appeared to get that goal back quickly when Austin Cangelosi fired home a rebound at the four-minute mark. But the officials on the ice immediately waved off the goal, citing interference with Merrimack netminder Rasmus Tirronen (30 saves). Video review confirmed the call and the Warriors, whose offense had sputtered for much of the evening, remained within a goal.
That seemed like maybe the karma the Warriors (13-7-2, 4-5-1) were looking for to end the 17-year curse at Conte Forum. But a confident Boston College team, a club with just a single loss in its last 10, found a way to close the game.
“During this stretch of games, they’ve all been close games,” Boston College coach Jerry York said. “You’ve got to have the confidence to make a play in those games, whether to block a shot or chip it by a crashing defenseman.
“There’s not a lot of difference between the teams [in Hockey East]. We’re looking for what edge there is to win a game.”
The teams played a scoreless first period, each with a single chance on the power play. Grade A chances were limited if not completely absent, with the Eagles holding a meaningless advantage in shots at 11-8.
It took little time in the second period, however, for Boston College’s offense to finally break through. Noah Hanifin’s wrist shot from the left point deflected on its way to Tirronen just enough to turn an easy save into a big rebound that Adam Gilmour poked home for his seventh goal of the season at 1:15 for the 1-0 lead.
Boston College controlled much of the middle frame but an Eagles power play late in the period led to a strange sequence of events that nearly compromised that lead. At 15:43, defenseman Mike Matheson mishandled the puck at the left point, allowing Merrimack’s Kyle Singleton to break in alone.
BC defenseman Teddy Doherty caught up to Singleton and hooked him from behind. Falling down, Singleton couldn’t get off the shot but the puck and Singleton crashed into Demko, dislodging the net as the puck was about to cross the line.
Video review showed that despite being hooked, Singleton interfered with Demko, disallowing the goal. Still, the officials ruled the hook warranted a penalty shot.
With another chance to tie the game, Singleton, looking for his first goal in more than two years, fired high on Demko (22 saves), and the netminder routinely deflected the shot over the net with his shoulder.
Less than two minutes later, the Eagles turned the momentum of the play into a second goal as Chris Calnan found room on the right wing, drove the net and stuffed the puck between Tirronen’s legs at 17:20 for a 2-0 lead.