Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder was desperate. His club hadn’t scored on Merrimack goalie Joe Exter in nearly two hours of hockey this season.
So when the Huskies were given their sixth power-play opportunity of the game Friday night, trailing by three goals with five minutes remaining, it was time for a desperate move.
Crowder pulled goalie Keni Gibson to set up a 6-on-4 advantage that paid off when freshman Mike Morris jammed a shot off Warriors defenseman Nick Cammarata’s skate between Exter and the left post with 3:56 left in regulation.
However, Exter stood the test the rest of way at the Volpe Center for a 3-1 victory, making most of his 20 third-period saves over the final 3:22, as the Huskies finished out the game with the Gibson on the bench for the extra attacker.
Morris’ goal snapped a 116:04 shutout streak against the visitors for the Merrimack captain, who blanked Northeastern, 1-0, on Dec. 7. But overall the win was Exter’s fourth without a loss versus the Huskies (9-16-2, 4-13-1 Hockey East).
“Obviously we had to try something,” said a beleaguered Crowder, whose club fell six points behind seventh-place Merrimack in the Hockey East standings. “Exter was standing on his head. It’s almost like nothing ventured, nothing gained.
“Our situation was we had gone almost six periods without getting one by him, and it was like, ‘What have we got to lose?’ You’re down 3-0 and, what, you lose 4-0?”
Showing no lingering effects from the ugly wrist injury he suffered during an October practice, Warriors sophomore Steve Crusco posted the first two-goal game of his career with one in each of the first two periods.
Crusco’s first goal came in close off a rebound of a Rob LaLonde shot from the blue line with both teams skating 4-on-4. His second was a 40-foot wrist shot through traffic from in front of the Merrimack bench that Gibson never expected nor saw pass him on the way to the net.
Cammarata, playing possibly the best game of his four-year career, added a third goal before the second intermission, breaking a hard wrist shot from 20 feet out off of Gibson’s glove at the 17:08 mark.
With a game in hand on Providence, Merrimack (11-11-5, 6-8-3) stands two points behind the fifth-place Friars entering Sunday’s matinee against Maine in Orono. The Warriors are just a point behind Massachusetts for sixth place, but by game time Sunday will have four games in hand on the Minutemen, who host UMass-Lowell Friday.
The last time Merrimack sat .500 overall in February was 1989, the season before it joined Hockey East.
“It’s getting down to the wire,” Cammarata said. “As seniors, we’re looking to do what no Merrimack team has ever done. Be in good position to make it to the FleetCenter, and that’s our goal. It’s time to hunker down.”
The Warriors’ fleet defenseman admitted he was disappointed in being responsible for the goal that ended Exter’s shutout streak against the Huskies.
“It was a bad bounce,” the assistant captain said. “We always want it for Joe. He is this program right now.”
Despite pretty much dominating the first two periods, all was not perfect for the Warriors.
The busiest man on the Merrimack side proved to be team trainer Tim Grinell, who was called upon early and often. Already riddled with injuries in the defensive corps, the Warriors found themselves further dinged up by the Huskies.
Sophomore Brendon Clark missed the final 1:14 of the first period and most of the second after being stepped on and sliced on the left thumb during a skirmish deep in Northeastern’s zone. After checked out for tendon damage, the center needed seven stitches to close the wound and three more for another on his chin.
Crusco also took a vicious hit against the scorer’s table glass from Huskies senior Joe Mastronardi. The defenseman was assessed a minor penalty for boarding while Crusco stayed down a while with a bruised knee.
Even Merrimack assistant coach Stu Irving required three stitches after being hit on the side of his left eye with an errant puck.
“It was nonstop tonight,” Grinell said. “Thirteen stitches is a pretty busy night.”
Merrimack coach Chris Serino said that Friday night’s lineup will be the one the Warriors play with Sunday against the No. 2 Black Bears. Defensemen Eric Pedersen and Derek Kilduff will be held out at least until next weekend’s home-and-home series with Boston College.
“I’ve got 20 players to put out there,” Serino said. “We expect the 20 players that we put out there can win any game. And what we’ve been getting out of these guys is encouraging.”