NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — For Merrimack to retain a legitimate chance to win the Hockey East regular season title, it needed to defeat Boston College Saturday night at the Lawler Rink. Though giving maximum effort, the Warriors failed to earn a vital point, falling 2-1 to the first-place Eagles.
For BC coach Jerry York, wins No. 900 and 901 during the weekend propelled the team onto the top of Hockey East. The Eagles sit one point above second-place UMass Lowell and two above Boston University in third. Even with four games left in the regular season, the pair of wins places BC in a strong position to win their second-consecutive Hockey East title.
Forward Paul Carey scored with seven minutes remaining to give his team a 2-1 lead. The senior collected the rebound from Tommy Cross’ shot and launched a wrist shot above the blocker of Merrimack goalie Joe Cannata.
What I Saw
The Warriors were intent on not repeating the start to Friday’s game which saw the team finish the opening period with a two-goal deficit and double-digit shot disparity. This time the team exited the period with the shots even at nine, though down one goal.
Merrimack continued that level of effort in the second, dominating the frame and enjoying multiple quality scoring chances. But with only one goal to show for their 18 shots, the team entered the third with immense pressure to break the deadlock.
After BC scored to take a 2-1 lead late in the third, defenseman Kyle Bigos took an untimely boarding penalty with five minutes remaining. The junior levelled Patch Alber with a devastating body check and elbow to the head.
The Warriors pressured for the remaining three minutes after the successful kill — including an odd-man rush opportunity after Cross failed to clear the zone in the waning seconds — but could not muster an equalizer.
Despite the many chances for each team with the man advantage, BC scored the only power play goal. Both teams’ penalty kill units played well, especially for the Eagles, which held Merrimack to one shot attempt on the power plays.
What I Thought
BC junior Brian Dumoulin again proved Saturday night why he’s among the elite of Hockey East defensemen. Beyond his abilities with the puck, toughness is one of his best qualities. The Maine native took a pair of hard hits into the boards — once in each zone — that levelled the six-foot-four skater in the first period. Each time, Dumoulin promptly rose and finished the play. Though, he did commit one instance of undisciplined play as he retaliated after being hit into the boards and checked down on the ice to the right of Milner.
But the defenseman more than compensated for the indiscretion as he scored on the power play several minutes later, putting a delicate wrist shot just above Cannata’s outstretched stick. That goal was critical to the Eagles effort as Merrimack’s strong play in the second and third periods rendered few Eagle scoring chances.
York acknowledged after the game that Dumoulin was among the best defenseman he’s coached during his 40 years.
“He seems to be getting better as I watch him play each week,” the coach said of his top two-way defender. “His defensive play is phenomenal. He’s always had good offensive skills, but his defensive game has really improved this year.”
Unlike the previous night’s contest between the two squads, which was a clean, barely penalized affair, Saturday’s game featured a rash of infractions. The first period alone had five penalties.
The contest became even more physical early in the second, as pushing and shoving erupted behind Cannata. The altercations prompted referees John Gravallese and Tom Quinn to send four players to the box, and ultimately 14 penalty minutes in the frame.
Much of the physical play and aggression was evidently a manifestation of the pressure the Merrimack players felt in needing to win this game.
What They Said
“From my perspective, the game has a real playoff-type atmosphere to it,” York said. “With the close-checking, good goaltending at both ends — it was fitting of the playoff race that we’re in.”
“The rink here is smaller, so there are a lot more whistles,” York said. “It’s a much more fractured game and there’s less flow to it; it’s a much more physical game here. We think as a team that we have to be able to play [anywhere in Hockey East].”
“We had a packed house and played well from start to finish. I thought it was arguably our best game of the year,” Dennehy said. “The second period probably was the best period we played. We’ve felt that we’ve been playing better the past couple of weeks.”
What Else You Should Know
BC can rest easy knowing that the harder past of its schedule has been conquered. The Eagles have four games left against Providence and last-place Vermont. Three of the games are at home.
For Merrimack the schedule doesn’t get any easier, as the team faces UMass Lowell in a pivotal pair of games next weekend. The annual home-and-home series between the two Hockey East teams of the Merrimack Valley will be a significant determinant in the order of finish among the league’s top five.