NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – Merrimack College has not yet escaped from the basement of the Hockey East standings but it is knocking on the door.
With three-regular season games remaining, the Warriors pulled within one point of 10th-place New Hampshire by defeating the Wildcats, 3-2, on Friday night at Lawler Rink.
Merrimack, which hosts No. 20 Boston University tonight, swept its regular-season series with the Wildcats with the win.
The top five seeds in the conference playoffs earn a first-round bye. Teams seeded No. 6-8 will host those seeded No. 9-11 in the opening round. The Warriors (9-17-4, 6-13-2 Hockey East) are three points behind eighth-place Vermont. Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy is not obsessing over the standings, however.
“We can’t pay too too much attention to the board,” Dennehy said. “We’ve got to just play because at the end of the day, we’re in the playoffs so we need to make sure we’re playing well.”
The Wildcats (10-16-6, 5-12-5 Hockey East) are 1-11-5 over their last 17 games. Ten of New Hampshire’s 11 losses over the stretch have come by two or fewer goals.
“We play hard but we don’t have a whole lot to show for it,” Wildcats coach Dick Umile said.
Merrimack erased a 2-0 New Hampshire lead with two late first-period goals and then took the lead for good in the second frame.
Cole McBride scored the game-winning goal on Merrimack’s first power play of the game at 7:27 of the second period. New Hampshire entered Friday’s contest with the No. 2 penalty-kill percentage in the nation (.886).
Merrimack scored twice inside the final three minutes of the opening period to knot the score at 2-2 entering the first intermission. Sophomore defenseman Ryan Cook created the two-goal deadlock by scoring from the left point with 0.06 of a second remaining in the frame. Classmate Johnathan Kovacevic put Merrimack on the board with 2:29 left in the first period.
New Hampshire struggled to create opportunities in the third period, mustering just four shots on goal over the final 20 minutes after logging 32 over the first two periods. The Wildcats also saw senior forward Shane Eiserman get ejected with 9:20 remaining after receiving a five-minute major penalty and game misconduct for boarding.
“I thought the third period was good in the sense that I didn’t think we gave up too much,” Dennehy said.
Liam Blackburn had a hand in both New Hampshire goals. The sophomore center sprung Eiserman’s breakaway goal 2:26 into the game that opened the scoring. Blackburn then tallied a power-play goal 9:22 into the opening period, giving the Wildcats a 2-0 advantage.
Eiserman’s tally marked his fourth of the season and first since the Wildcats’ victory at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on Dec. 6.
Freshman Mike Robinson made 31 saves for New Hampshire in just his second career start. He has made four appearances this season. Umile said he gave the nod to Robinson because the team has confidence in the goaltender and the Wildcats’ usual starter in net, senior Danny Tirone, had played in three games over the past week.
Craig Pantano made 34 saves for the Warriors.
“For us to come back from down two goals, which we haven’t done in awhile, I think is a testament to our guys,” Dennehy said. “We’ve got a little different vibe going right now and I’m liking it.”