Spotty goaltending and poor puck handling plagued the Maine Black Bears men’s hockey team through two periods against Hockey East conference opponent Merrimack College at the Alfond Arena on Friday night. The Warriors took a 5-1 lead in the middle period before the Black Bears had a response, but Maine couldn’t complete the comeback opportunity, falling after a late empty net goal by the score of 6-4.
“It’s been kind of a storied season not coming out hard, it’s been hurting us. We’ve got to be better at [puck handling] tomorrow. It’s something we’ve been stressing all season,” Black Bears fourth-year forward Will Merchant said.
The Warriors netted four consecutive goals in the first and second periods before the Black Bears rebounded off the back of their leading scorer, Merchant, who notched two power play goals late in the middle stanza to revitalize his team. Unfortunately, his efforts were not enough for the Black Bears to win the game.
“The game was lost in the first period. The score was 5-1 at one point. That can’t happen. Whether it was our battle level, puck management, our goaltending, nothing was sharp to start the game. The other team dictated the game for most of the first two periods. Then we came back, clawed ourselves back into the game, but the game was lost long before then,” Maine Head Coach Red Gendron said after the contest.
Maine battled their way back by the third period, and Gendron made the decision to pull first-year goaltender Rob McGovern with just over a minute remaining in the contest. On the ensuing faceoff, first-year defender Rob Michel mishandled a puck at the point, and Warriors fourth-year forward Ben Bahe brought it the length of the ice for an empty net goal to seal the 6-4 victory.
“Just what everybody expected with two offensively challenged teams, a 6-4 hockey game,” Merrimack Head Coach Mark Dennehy joked after the contest.
The first period was a disaster for the Black Bears, as poor passing at their own end of ice immediately resulted in two Warriors goals.
Black Bears first-year wing Daniel Perez sent a misguided pass along his own blue line that fourth-year forward Justin Hussar found on the tape of his stick. Hussar skated through the Maine slot without any company, lifting a wrist shot over the glove of third-year goaltender Matt Morris, who started the contest for Maine, to take a 2-1 lead.
A bad clearing attempt by Maine led to another Merrimack score later in the period. Battling along the corner boards, a Black Bear defender attempted to clear the puck, but Warriors second-year defender Marc Biega saved the puck and skated deep into the Maine zone, roofing the puck off the crossbar and into the net to double the Merrimack advantage.
Another Black Bears turnover, this time at mid-ice, set up second-year wing Brett Seney for Merrimack’s fourth goal. Seney recovered the puck in transition and skated into the Black Bears end, sending a wrist shot short side to beat Morris for a 4-1 Merrimack lead. Morris was pulled after the goal, stopping only 11 of the 15 shots he faced four minutes into the middle period.
Merrimack took its largest lead of the contest when a 3-on-2 play in transition ended in Merrimack’s fifth tally, this time on McGovern. McGovern made the initial save from a shot at the right faceoff circle, but Merrimack first-year center Michael Babcock recovered the rebound and beat McGovern before he could flash to the opposite post, giving Merrimack a 5-1 lead.
Maine finally had a response late in the middle period when Merchant netted his two power play goals. Fourth-year center Steven Swavely assisted on both plays.
Swavely took a shot on Warriors second-year goaltender Collin Delia that rebounded off his chest and back into the slot. A scrum ensued in front of the net, where Merchant corralled the puck and lifted a shot over a sprawling Delia from eight feet out to bring Maine within three tallies.
Merchant would score again less than two minutes later after Swavely sent a puck from the corner boards to the goalmouth. Merchant punched the puck under Delia’s pad and over the goal line to reduce the Merrimack lead to just two goals.
Third-year defender Eric Schurhamer netted a Black Bears goal in the third period at even strength, cutting the Maine deficit to a single score. Maine lost its momentum late in the contest after Merrimack recalibrated and sharpened defensively. The Black Bears squandered their chance to tie on Bahe’s late empty netter.
“I told the kids exactly what I’ve told you guys, it’s on you guys. I’ve given you kudos for hanging in there all year long, but tonight I’m angry at our team. I’m sorry, there’s no excuse for that,” Gendron said.
Black Bears earn redemption with 3-2 OT victory
After squandering a two-goal lead late in the final period, the Black Bears rebounded with an overtime goal by first-year right-wing Daniel Perez to defeat Merrimack 3-2 on the backend of the weekend series.
The game’s finish was a fitting way for the Black Bears to send out their fourth-year players on Senior Night. Maine honored Merchant, Conor Riley, Andrew Tegeler, Bill Norman and captain Swavely after the game for their contributions to the program in their four years as Black Bears.
Michel sent a shot on net from the point that rebounded to the right of the goalmouth, where Perez backhanded the puck to the far post to give Maine the victory.
“That type of game is more of what we expected last night. We expected Maine to come back with a real push and they did. I liked how we responded, I thought we played a much more consistent game than we did last night. We didn’t generate as much offense but a lot of that had to do with Maine’s defense,” Dennehy said of his team’s performance.
The first two periods of play were a defensive battle between two teams regularly plagued by offense. Both teams had a plethora of scoring opportunities, but the first-year netminders for both teams were stout in net. First-year goaltender Drew Vogler got the start in net for the Warriors, while McGovern started for Maine after performing well in his relief effort in game one of the weekend series.
Neither team could score a goal until the final moments of the third period, saving the excitement for the most intense moments of the game. Maine took a 2-0 lead with 5:47 remaining in the third period before Merrimack responded by tallying two 6-on-5 goals with their goaltender pulled in the final 1:43 of regulation.
“I didn’t think we shot the puck enough. One of the ways to free yourself up is to put pucks on the net. When you do, the defenders have to find the puck. We didn’t shoot as much tonight as we did last night, which is a mistake on our part. We needed to put more pucks on McGovern,” Dennehy said.
Maine opened up the scoring when Swavely batted a puck out of midair and off the crossbar to give Maine a 1-0 lead. Swavely netted the goal with the help of linemate Merchant, who took the initial shot on net that bounced off the chest of Vogler and into the air. Swavely flashed across the crease and batted the puck over the sprawled out Vogler, giving Maine the first goal of the contest.
The Black Bears doubled their lead moments later on the power play. Just like their first goal, Maine created offense by sending shots at Vogler. An initial shot by Brown rebounded out into the slot, where Brown corralled the puck and fired it under the stick side shoulder to give Maine a two goal advantage.
“Because we held onto the puck too long, [Maine] was able to defend us much better tonight,” Dennehy said.
Merrimack notched their first goal with Vogler pulled with less than two minutes remaining in regulation. For Merrimack, it was their fourth goal with a 6-on-5 advantage in three weeks.
“I thought our guys battled hard,” Dennehy said. “Getting two extra man goals to get back in it shows you that this team has no quit in it.”
Third-year forward Chris LeBlanc found a puck near the left faceoff circle and beat McGovern to the near side post, cutting the Black Bears lead in half. Seney knotted the score for the Warriors on a pass from fourth-year defender Jared Kolquist. Seney, the New Jersey Devils prospect, sniped a wrist shot on McGovern with just 22 seconds remaining to bring the game to overtime.
McGovern finished with 21 saves on 23 shots and Vogler stopped 30 of the 33 shots he faced in the contest. Merrimack failed to convert on its two power play opportunities while Maine cashed in one on five chances.
The Black Bears return to action in next week on the road when they face off against the Northeastern Huskies for a weekend series in Boston. Puck drop is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Friday.