The Takeaway: Merrimack improves NCAA profile

Posted by: Michael King

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Entering Saturday’s game against UMass, Merrimack was aware of its Hockey East playoff fate. By virtue of Maine’s 1-0 victory earlier in the afternoon over New Hampshire, the Black Bears clinched the final home ice position and Merrimack as their opponent. However, there was still much for the Warriors to play for, as concluding the regular season with a win and a run in the conference playoffs could yield an NCAA bid.

Saturday night, the Warriors accomplished one portion of their goal, defeating UMass, 5-3, at Lawler Arena behind a dominate third period. Merrimack scored three-consecutive goals to neutralize a 2-1 deficit entering the frame to earn the victory.

With the loss, the Minutemen settled for the eighth seed and will face Hockey East regular season champion Boston College in Chestnut Hill.

What I Saw

The Minutemen entered the third period with a 2-1 lead, but failed to hold the advantage after a series of defensive breakdowns. The first came with 10 minutes left, as forward Josh Myers converted an odd-man rush opportunity. Then Shawn Bates gave his team the lead as he settled a perfectly-placed puck past UMass goaltender Steve Mastalerz, having received a pass from Kyle Singleton from behind the net.

Those plays marked brief lapses in the Minutemen’s defensive shape that had held strong for most of the game.

It was a penalty filled first two periods for both teams. However, the best scoring chances came during short-handed opportunities, including UMass’ first goal.

Much has been made about the team’s lack of ability to compete on smaller ice surfaces, such as the one at Lawler Arena. However, near the end of the third period, senior captain T.J. Syner proved that a truly excellent skating ability translates to any circumstance.

The senior collected the puck in his own end and skated the length of the ice, avoiding several stoic Merrimack players, who were evidently caught off-guard by the move toward the net so late in the period. He created the slightest of space near the net and beat Warrior goalie Joe Cannata with a quick wrist shot above his blocker. It was a true highlight-worthy goal and certainly one of the season’s best for UMass.

The goal capped a strong period for the Minutemen, whose success was only reduced by a pair of ineffective power plays.

What I Thought

For the second consecutive night, the Minutemen played well for the majority of the game. However, unlike Friday, UMass failed to play strong defensively for the entire 60 minutes. The Minutemen entered the final period with the lead and simply could not hold on.

Again, penalties were an issue. It did not lead to its ultimate undoing as it did in many games earlier in the season, but it prevented UMass from establishing sustained periods of offensive pressure.

This loss was not devastating for UMass, especially considering the resiliency shown in cutting the deficit to 4-3 after allowing three-consecutive goals. However, scoring three times on Cannata –arguably the best goalie in Hockey East — should be enough to beat Merrimack given their recent offensive woes.

Towering Merrimack defenseman Kyle Bigos can add to the Warriors’ physicality, but at times he can also be a liability. He took three penalties Saturday night, all involving the overuse size and forcing his presence along the boards. The six-foot-five Edmonton Oilers draft pick had trouble with UMass’ small and quick forwards both nights. And certainly he’s not alone. It’s common for defensemen across Hockey East to react in the same manner to forwards with that type of ability.

What They Said

Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy on his team’s offensive outburst in the third period: “There was a lot of goal-scoring. There wasn’t a lot of flow to the game. I don’t how many passes were made tape-to-tape by either team. There was a lot of chipping at the puck and play around the boards.”

Bates on next weekend’s playoff series in Orono: “It’s almost like all of Maine is there [on game nights at Alfond Arena]. It’s is a fun place to play. As hard of those fans can be [on opposing teams], it also gets you ready to play. They’re going to be gunning for us since we knocked them out last year.”

UMass coach Don Cahoon on his team’s strong play to start the game: “We played two good periods and matched the way we try to play in this building and take control of the game. The only issue was that we didn’t yield very much for our effort. We had lots of good opportunities, a couple of breakaways, and a few other situations where we needed to put the puck away.”

Cahoon on Syner’s shorthanded goal in the first period: “Last year at Minnesota, he had a goal that was very similar. It wasn’t shorthanded but it pulled the 11,000 fans in the arena right out of their seats. You don’t see too many goals like that — only very special athletes can do it.

What Else You Should Know

By virtue of the team’s victory over Merrimack Friday night at the Mullins Center and Northeastern’s loss, UMass had already clinched a playoff spot entering the second half of the home-and-home. The impact of a weekend sweep was debatable for the Minutemen, as one could argue that earning the seventh seed, with BU as the probable opponent (BU ended up taking the third seed, with UMass Lowell second), would benefit the team. UMass nearly won two games at Agganis Arena this season (one victory, one overtime loss and blown third-period lead), and tied the other game in Amherst.

However, the Minutemen will play at BC in a best-of-three series beginning next weekend. Although UMass won the season series against the Eagles (scores of 4-2 and 4-0), the team was vastly outplayed in its one meeting at Conte Forum in October. Given the way UMass has fared in Chestnut Hill in recent years (four losses in 2010-11 and three in 2009-10), it will be a challenge for UMass to win the series and earn a trip to the TD Garden for the semi-finals.

The Warriors have the unenviable task of trying to win a pair of games at Maine. The Black Bears are notoriously difficult to beat on the road, but Merrimack will need to take the series to have a chance to make the NCAA tournament.

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