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A year after their storybook run to a national championship, nothing has come too easily this season for Boston University.
Tonight was no exception, as the Terriers spotted Merrimack a 2-0 lead before rallying in the second and third periods to pull out a 3-2 win in game one of the best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series in front of 3,508 at Agganis Arena.
Winger Vinny Saponari scored the game-tying and game-winning goals for the victors after David Warsofsky got BUâ€™s first goal. Goaltender Joe Cannata was the obvious standout for the Warriors, as the sophomore made 38 saves.
â€œThe first thing that jumps out at me was how hard both teams played,â€ Terriers coach Jack Parker said. â€œIt was a really physical game, an emotional game, a fast game. There were a lot of good opportunities on both ends of the rink. I know Iâ€™m pleased with my team, and I thought they played hard, too.â€
â€œI guess thatâ€™s playoff hockey,â€ Warriors coach Mark Dennehy said. â€œIt was a street fight out there. I thought our guys represented themselves pretty well. It was a hard-fought game.â€
BU started strong and really began to press Merrimack around the seven-minute mark of the first period. The Terriers had three or four chances over the next couple of minutes, only to surrender a goal on the Warriorsâ€™ first real opportunity of the night. Under pressure, Warriors right wing Matt Moulakelis flipped the puck out of the zone from near his net.
Terriers defenseman Max Nicastro had a bead on it at center ice, only to have the puck get through him, setting up a breakaway for Pat Kimball, who buried it. It was the first goal of the season for Kimball and just the third point of the year for Moulakelis.
Merrimack utilized a curious strategy much of the night. Even when BU had clear possession of the puck in the Warriors end, Merrimack often kept a forward skating just outside of the Terriers blue line. Dennehy refused to explain afterward, citing â€œtrade secrets,â€ but Parker found it intriguing.
â€œIâ€™ve seen two or three coaches who have really enjoyed using it and do it a lot,â€ Parker said. â€œItâ€™s a game of 4-on-4 in their zone, and when you get possession itâ€™s 5-on-4 — we had a couple of power plays going for a while — but youâ€™d better be careful because if you let it go. â€¦ In general, we did a good job of going in and then coming out again when we realized there was imminent danger.â€
Merrimack made it 2-0 at 6:14 of the second on a soft goal. Junior Chris Barton skated in on the right wing, dropping the puck to Jeff Velecca. The right wingâ€™s backhander was high and soft, but it hit Kieran Millan on the right shoulder before popping over and in.
Terriers fans with long memories might have flashed back to the Warriorsâ€™ stunning quarterfinal win against BU back in 1998. However, the Terriers got their biggest goal of the night halfway through the second stanza. Zach Cohen crushed Adam Ross with a hit at center ice, springing David Warsofsky for a breakaway and a goal through the five-hole of Joe Cannata.
â€œThat kind of ignited us,â€ Parker said.
Less than two minutes later, Merrimack looked flustered in its own end, and a wild scramble led to the tying goal. Saponari took the initial shot, and Nick Bonino tried for the wraparound on the rebound. He went down and lost the handle on the puck, which drifted out to Saponari, who buried it with a backhander.
Dennehy called a timeout, and Merrimack seemed to regroup as a result. The teams went into the third period tied, but Saponari got the game-winner at 4:11.
â€œI had just come off the bench, so I was fresh, and I think they were a little tired,â€ Saponari said. â€œI just wheeled, and [Andrew] Glass made a nice drive to the net. He took the D out of the way, and I just outwaited the other D and luckily snuck the backhand in over Joeyâ€™s shoulder.â€
On a power play with six minutes remaining, Chris Barton and company had some good chances for Merrimack in the waning moments of the game. â€¦ But Millan saved his best saves for last, including a nice glove save on Stephane Da Costa with just 17 seconds remaining.
â€œCouldnâ€™t win an offensive-zone faceoff,â€ Dennehy said when asked about his teamâ€™s 0-6 showing on the power play. â€œI thought we did a better job later in the game, but I thought we werenâ€™t ready for the hand-to-hand combat. Weâ€™ve got to win battles.â€
Saponari agreed that the game was one of his most satisfying individual performances.
â€œProbably right up there. Iâ€™ve had big goals at times. I had one in the Frozen Four last year. In a playoff game and a tight one, to be able to chip in the tying one and the winning is a pretty special moment for me.â€
BU ended up outshooting the visitors by a 41-28 margin. â€œIt was just an extension of what we saw last weekend against Northeastern,â€ Parker said. â€œThe team seems focused, and thatâ€™s the most important thing for us.â€
The teams face off again tomorrow. BU (17-15-3) will look to advance to the Hockey East semifinals, while Merrimack (15-18-2) will try to keep their season alive.
â€œThe best part about this time of year is that if you win the game, you get to play another game.,â€ Dennehy said. â€œThatâ€™s what we do tomorrow.â€