For a game pitting the Hockey East leaders against the team currently in ninth place, it was much closer than anyone anticipated. No. 4 Northeastern (13-4-2, 9-2-1 HEA) needed a third period goal to overcome the pesky Merrimack College Warriors (5-10-3, 2-8-2 HEA) 2-1 in front of 4,437 Friday night.

The opening frame of the game was a back and forth period, with Merrimack having the upper hand, especially early. The Warriors put 11 shots on Northeastern netminder Brad Thiessen, but couldn’t score. Merrimack freshmen netminder Joe Cannata was also up to the task, turning away the only four shots he saw.

The Huskies opened the scoring in the second period on a Steve Quailer penalty shot. Fraser Allan was whistled for delay of game, and it was ruled that he grabbed the puck in the crease and threw it out as the Huskies were a man up.

For that, Northeastern was awarded a penalty shot, and coach Greg Cronin elected to have Quailer take it. It was the first penalty shot for Northeastern since February 16, 2008, when Tyler McNeely missed against UMass in Amherst, MA.

Quailer took the puck from center ice and quickly moved to his backhand, coming down the ice to Cannata’s left hand side. Quailer deked to his forehand before quickly going back to the backhand and slid the puck between Cannata’s pad and the post, giving Northeastern the advantage.

“[Quailer] was upset because right before the whistle blew, I think he had a whack at an empty net or a rebound and he missed it and I could see he was upset,” Cronin said. “He’s kind of a real cold-blooded kid; he doesn’t get that angry, and I could see he was really upset about whatever happened. He just looked at me. I said ‘You want to take the penalty shot?’ He said, real laid back, ‘Yea, I’ll take it,’ kind of like a Clint Eastwood thing. He made a hell of a shot.”

“Our goalie coach [John Carratu] used to work with [Cannata], so he said he leaves the post early, so I just decided to go to my backhand side and cut across and then he left early so I took the back end,” Quailer said.

Northeastern held that lead going into the third period, but less than five minutes in Merrimack evened the score. Former Northeastern Husky Joe Cucci, who transferred to Merrimack before playing a game at Northeastern last season, scored his third goal of the season on a five-on-three advantage.

With both Wade MacLeod and Louis Liotti in the box for Northeastern, the Merrimack power play began to set up. The puck was worked down low to Karl Stollery by Jesse Todd. From the hash marks, Stollery faked a quick shot, which put Thiessen in the butterfly, before feeding Cucci, who was wide open in the slot. Cucci ripped a shot directly to the back of the net before Thiessen could get to the far side.

“You tie a game 1-1 in the third on the road against a team that’s in first place in your league, I don’t care if it’s a distant cousin of a former Northeastern coach, your team is going to be excited,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said.

Northeastern regained the lead on an error by Joe Cannata however, after the constant Merrimack pressure. Cannata went out to play the puck in the corner when Northeastern forward Greg Costa came flying in. As Cannata tried to clear it from harm’s way, Costa was able to knock it down and feed Ryan Ginand, who was flying in from the blue line. Ginand ripped the quick shot before Cannata could make it back to his net, giving the Huskies the edge.

“I’ve been kind of in a rut the last three games,” Ginand said. “I’ve been holding onto the puck way too much, and during that second and third intermission I said ‘I’ve just got to put it on net,’ so I just figured, hey, tee it up and put it in.” .

The Huskies almost added to their lead late in the third when Dennis McCauley came in on a breakaway. As McCauley was about to shoot, Stollery was just able to get his stick on McCauley’s and send the puck astray.

Merrimack continued to pour on more shots trying to even the score, but Thiessen was able to turn away the rest of them, allowing the Huskies to escape with the win.

“I thought we played a really good road game, they’re a very difficult team to play from the net on out,” Dennehy said. “Thiessen’s save percentage in the league is like .940. It will probably go up after tonight’s game; he’s a big time goalie.”

The two teams play again Saturday at Lawler Arena in North Andover, MA, for the second of their three meetings this year.