Perhaps the most telling sign of what to expect in Saturday’s rematch with No. 1 Maine could be read on the faces of the Warriors. They weren’t at all satisfied.
Within a span of 3:48 in the waning minutes Friday night, Merrimack College squandered two one-goal leads against the best team in the land and was forced to settle for a 5-5 overtime tie in front of a bipartisan crowd of 2,892.
Black Bears defenseman Francis Nault scored the final equalizer with 43.3 seconds left in regulation after Maine (18-2-3, 8-1-2 league) had pulled freshman goalie Frank Doyle for an extra attacker. That goal quickly swung the wave of emotion that was about to crest inside the Volpe Center over to the visitors side just 27 seconds after Merrimack freshman Brent Gough ripped off what appeared to be the game-winner on a 4-on-2 break with 1:10 remaining.
“You’re up and then you’re down,” said Gough, who also assisted on goals by linemate Matt Johnson and defenseman Rob LaLonde. “But you just got to get back and do your job. Bad breaks, I guess, but that’s the game of hockey.
“We know now we can skate with them, play hockey with them. They’re No. 1 and we have to show them respect, but we have to come out just as hard as we did today or even harder (Saturday).”
Maybe a good night’s sleep will provide the discontented Warriors (8-9-4, 5-6-2) with some sense of fulfillment. After all, they did manage to erase a two-goal deficit at the first intermission with a three-goal spurt of their own during a 4:50 span of the second period.
“We stressed all week that if we didn’t do the little things right we’d be in trouble,” said Merrimack head coach Chris Serino, whose team extended its home unbeaten streak against Maine to three games (1-0-2). “A couple of times we didn’t do the little things right, and they put the puck in the net.
“If we correct those little things, we’ll be OK. We know what we have to do to win, it’s just a matter of doing it.”
The Warriors initially thought they were OK when LaLonde scored his first career goal with a bullet from the blue line that bounced off the crossbar and in with 4:31 left, giving Merrimack turned out to be a short-lived lead. LaLonde broke what was a 3-3 tie after Maine freshman Greg Moore deposited his second goal of the night — both of which were set up beautifully by Ben Murphy — immediately off a face off in the home zone at the 7:56 mark of the third.
“I was definitely excited to be back in North Andover playing in front of some hometown people,” said Murphy, who equaled his season high with two points. “We knew Merrimack was a solid team, especially at home where they play everybody tough. But we’re not happy with the tie because we think we could have stopped those last two goals by not turning the puck over.”
Making a quick move to the middle with 2:08 remaining, Black Bears forward Todd Jackson snapped off a wrist shot from 35 feet out that slipped under the right pad of Warriors goalie Joe Exter (43 saves), again knotting the score at 4-4 and setting up the scenario for the wild finish.
“It was kind of a bittersweet game for us because we came back a couple of times but then weren’t smart with the puck, either,” said Maine head coach Tim Whitehead, whose club is now 15-1-2 since Nov. 1. “We certainly opened the door for Merrimack to keep getting another one on us tonight.”
Patience paid off for Maine in the first period after a tentative start on the road. The Black Bears managed to kill off two early Merrimack power plays, limiting the hosts to just six shots, before freshman sensation Greg Moore opened the scoring at 13:52 with a blistering wrist shot over Exter’s right shoulder from 25 feet out.
The visitors increased their lead to 2-0 with the benefit of a 5-on-3 power-play situation, as the hottest scorer in Hockey East, senior Martin Kariya, scored his seventh goal in five games.
But Merrimack came out storming the net in the second period, turning a two-goal hole into a one-goal lead by the 6:53 mark.
Defenseman Bryan Schmidt scored a pair on the power play sandwiched around a nifty, dipsy-do highlight-reel goal by Johnson in less than a five-minute span.
“We took about 10 minutes off in that game, otherwise I think we outplayed them,” said Schmidt, the freshman now with five goals in three games. “That’s why we’re all disappointed.”
Kevin Conway covers college hockey for the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune