A makeshift and fatigued Merrimack lineup found it hard to contend with a well-rested and eager-to-please Massachusetts club Saturday night in the regular-season finale at the Volpe Center.
Freshman Stephen Werner scored once and assisted on three others, as the Minutemen won the showdown for sixth place in Hockey East, 5-2, earning the right make the midweek trek to Orono for a quarterfinal matchup with third-seeded Maine.
Meanwhile, the loss left the Warriors in seventh place, sending them into the postseason with a disappointing 0-3-1 record in their last four outings.
Coupled with Boston College’s 4-1 loss in Saturday night’s winner-take-all, first-place battle at New Hampshire, Merrimack (12-16-6, 7-13-4 Hockey East) will face the second-seeded Eagles in a best-of-3 quarterfinal series at the Heights starting Thursday night.
“It just seemed like whenever we had a defensive breakdown it went in,” said Warriors coach Chris Serino. “But no question about it, we were tired. We went on them as quickly as we could or should have been on them. It’s been a tough, frustrating week.”
That point couldn’t have been any clearer the two times Merrimack closed within one of Massachusetts only to have the visitors quickly make it a two-goal game again.
Werner’s 13th of the season with 10:40 left in regulation proved the backbreaker, though, coming off a weak shot from along the right boards and only 13 seconds after Warriors senior Ryan Cordeiro netted his second of the night on the power play to make it 3-2.
“That was a big, big goal,” said Massachusetts headman Don Cahoon, a serious contender for Hockey East coach of the year honors with his club finishing 17-16-1 overall (10-14-0 league). “I didn’t think we were as thorough as we needed to be and anything could have happened. They certainly could have had chances for a tie, especially in their own building.”
Sophomore Greg Mauldin scored his second of the night on an empty net with 50 seconds remaining for the final score.
“As happy as I am to get the win,” Cahoon added, “we know we have to play more solid to win (at Maine). I don’t know, quite honestly, if Merrimack was at full strength and as fresh as we should have been if the outcome would have been the same.”
By the midway point of the first period, the game resembled a match between a team playing its third game in a week and one playing just its first.
Though not generating many shots, Massachusetts began to take advantage of its fresh legs by long clearing passes from its zone into neutral ice, forcing the Warriors to wear down by having to chase the Minutemen. The strategy paid off late in the period on a pair of odd-man-rush goals just 2:37 apart by freshman Matt Anderson and Mauldin that Merrimack goalie Joe Exter had very little chance at stopping.
For the three-game season series, the line of Werner, Mauldin and Anderson registered nine goals and 23 points against the Warriors.
“I thought we did pretty well in containing them,” said Serino about the Minutemen’s second line. “But give them credit. They didn’t get too many chances, but the ones they did they put in.”
Cordeiro banged home a long rebound of a Bryan Schmidt wrister on Massachusetts goalie Gabe Winer (24 saves) at 9:07 of the second period to cut the deficit to 2-1. The two-goal night was the first of the season for the senior, giving him three in two games and making him the short-handed teams’ hottest scorer entering the postseason.
But 7:05 later, shortly after a Massachusetts power play, Minutemen junior Mike Warner batted his own rebound out of the air on his fourth uncontested shot attempt on Exter (14 saves) for his seventh goal, giving the visitors back a two-goal cushion at the second intermission.