For the better part of two periods, short-handed and beat-up Merrimack managed to keep up with a New Hampshire club that was due for a breakout game. But the odds — not to mention opposition’s talent — were definitely against the Warriors.
Senior Colin Hemingway scored twice on the power play while one of senior Jim Abbott’s two third-period goals also came with the man advantage, as No. 4 UNH swept the three-game season series against Merrimack behind a 6-1 rout in front of 2,881 at the Volpe Center.
Unless the two meet in the Hockey East playoffs, the Warriors will remain without a win against the Wildcats for seven-plus seasons dating back to Nov. 18, 1995. They have gone 0-25-3 against UNH over that span, including 0 for 6 in postseason matchups.
Practically the only positive Merrimack took away from Wednesday night’s pounding was preventing UNH goalie Mike Ayers from setting the school record and taking over the Division I lead with his sixth shutout of the season.
By no means was that a given, though, as the junior stopped all 16 shots he faced until seldom-used hometown freshman David Breen snapped off a 20-foot shot that beat Ayers over the glove with just 1:30 remaining.
“Had I known he was going for the school record, I wouldn’t have put Breen out there,” smirked Merrimack head coach Chris Serino, trying to conjure up some humor after a disappointing team effort.
Truth be told, UNH headman Dick Umile, who has been patiently waiting for his starting netminder to return to the dominating form he showed at midseason, just assumed Breen wasn’t on the ice for his second career goal.
“It’s too bad Michael didn’t get it tonight,” said Umile, whose club (20-7-4, 14-5-2 HEA) moved into first place with the victory, a point ahead of idle Boston College. “It would have been a monkey off his back. He’ll get [the school record], though, there’s no question about that.”
Playing without junior forward Marco Rosa, who was released from [nl]Lawrence (Mass.) General Hospital just before game time following Monday’s season-ending wrist surgery, and freshman forward Nick Pomponio (broken rib), Merrimack lacked an offensive spark as well as consistency in clearing its zone the entire evening.
“We made the right decisions in the first period with the puck. We were in the right places,” said Serino, whose team trailed 1-0 at the first intermission on UNH captain Patrick Foley’s seventh goal of the year. “The second period we didn’t for whatever reason. Plus the fact that we didn’t play very hard in the second period.”
A costly Warriors turnover at their own blue line set up junior Nathan Martz alone in front of beleaguered Merrimack goalie Joe Exter (23 saves) for the eventual game winner, 4:39 into the second period. Hemingway made it 3-0 with a highlight-reel goal at 15:50, whizzing past two Warriors and putting the puck between the legs of a third before slipping it under a diving Exter.
Early in the third period, Abbott split the Merrimack defense thanks to a perfect pass from defenseman Garrett Stafford (3 assists) for a breakaway goal on Exter to make it 4-0. Just over two minutes later, Hemingway one-timed a Stafford pass skating with a 5-on-3 advantage raising the lead to 5-0.
For the second time this season against UNH, Exter was pulled by Serino, giving way to sophomore Casey Guenther (7 saves), who promptly fell victim to Abbott’s seventh of the season and the visitors’ third power-play goal of the night.
While the Wildcats reached the 20-win plateau for the sixth straight season, Merrimack (12-14-5, 7-11-3) remained in sixth place, one point ahead of Massachusetts. With three games remaining, the Warriors still have a chance at finishing above .500 for the first time since 1988-89, the season before joining Hockey East.
“We had a built-in excuse tonight with Marco out, which there shouldn’t have been,” said Serino, who hinted at sticking with the same lineup for Tuesday’s series finale at UMass Lowell. “So it’s not a matter of making changes, it’s a matter of getting better at what we’re doing.”