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For two periods Massachusetts played like it couldn’t handle the burden of its first-ever national ranking, and Merrimack took advantage of the apparent letdown by taking a 3-1 lead in the third period.
But the Minutemen abruptly found their legs and unleashed an offensive onslaught that ended in a 4-3 win.
“I was furious with the way we came out,” UMass coach Don Cahoon said. “We played as we practiced. Most practices this week we stopped after 40 minutes because we weren’t getting anything accomplished.
“Fortunately we had enough wherewithal and skill to get back into it.”
Greg Mauldin scored the game winner off a pretty passing play at 18:26 of the third to mark the Minutemen’s third straight final-period comeback.
“We were just shaking our heads in the locker room,” Mauldin said. “I mean, we’re winning games so it’s a good thing. I just can’t believe this keeps happening for us.”
Stephen Werner sprung Matt Anderson into the offensive zone with speed. Anderson then wheeled around the right faceoff circle before feeding Greg Mauldin for a one-timer and the goal.
“I had to pass it away from him so he could come off the defender,” Anderson said. “That’s a goal-scorer’s goal. Nine times out of ten, even a good scorer doesn’t put that in, or even get a shot off.”
The tally came just under five minutes after Tim Turner knotted the game at three. Nearing the end of a power play, Chris Capraro fed Thomas Pock up top for a one-timer.
The shot went awry, ringing off the backboards and finding Turner on the crease for the score.
Warrior goalie Joe Exter did all he could to protect his team’s lead, but in the end a 23-7 shot differential in the third was too much for even him to overcome.
He stopped Mauldin on a hard shot from the left wing near the halfway point of the period . Then he stacked the pads to rob Mike Warner on a point-blank chance moments later.
The Minutemen still managed three goals in the period, while the Warriors did little to stop them.
“They just outmuscled us down low,” Warrior coach Chris Serino said. “They got that goal early in the third period and we just stopped playing. How many times did they beat our defenseman one-on-one.
“Guys were standing in the slot and nobody was covering them.”
It started with Matt Anderson’s sixth goal of the season on the power play at 6:30 of the third. Near the end of the man-advantage Nick Kuiper had a point shot deflected to Mauldin.
The sophomore then spun and fed a slashing Anderson, who deflected the pass through Exter’s legs.
The senior goalie turned away 20 shots in the final stanza and 36 on the evening.
For two periods it looked like he would shade the memories of two lackadaisical performances against New Hampshire and Lowell and turn in a vintage Exter game-stealer. Every time UMass threatened in the first 40 minutes, he was there to silence the threat.
Exter was at his best in the second period when UMass, after scoring to cut the deficit to one, made a strong bid for the equalizer.
Pock pinched to the slot and one-timed a pass through Exter’s legs to make it a 2-1 game, but he tightened up from that point on.
Mauldin and Werner were stoned on consecutive point-blank chances, allowing the Warriors to counterattack.
Bryan Schmidt took advantage, dropping Mauldin to the ice with a fake before firing a slapshot past Gabe Winer’s glove.
Winer made only 18 saves in one of his shakier performances of the year. He allowed a pair of early first-period goals that allowed Merrimack to go into its formidable defensive shell.
The first was a Warrior power-play goal from Nick Cammarata. Steve Crusco (two assists) controlled behind the net before feeding Cammarata for a short-side one-timer.
Lucas Smith made it 2-0 on a defensive breakdown by the Minutemen. Nick Kuiper was coming back for the puck when he slipped, forcing Winer to clear the puck away.
Smith intercepted the attempt and fired a slapshot past Winer.
The win gives UMass a three-game winning streak in conference and pushes its record to 13-7-1, 7-5-0 in Hockey East. Merrimack is currently riding a three-game losing streak and stands at 7-9-3, 4-6-1 in conference.