Vela scores two goals to pace New Hampshire past Merrimack to open Hockey East playoffs

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NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Merrimack played host to New Hampshire in the Warriors’ first playoff series at home since 2011.

The game was a back-and-forth style with each team creating chances for themselves, but Marcus Vela’s early second-period goal turned out to be the game winner as UNH took Game 1 of the Hockey East opening round series 3-1.

“Obviously, in the playoffs, two out of three, it’s great to win the first game,” said UNH coach Dick Umile. “I thought we battled back in the second and third period. It was a good game, an even game, and I liked the way we finished.”

The first period was controlled by Merrimack as the Warriors outshot UNH 16-5. Danny Tirone came up huge for UNH with 16 saves in the period, shutting down all of Merrimack’s chances. Drew Vogler also came up big for Merrimack with five saves of his own in the first period.

The second period saw UNH open up the scoring when Tyler Kelleher scored as bodies crashed the crease and he jammed the puck past Vogler to give UNH the 1-0 lead with 7:15 left in the middle frame.

Merrimack started the final period on a power play after UNH’s Shane Eiserman was called for an elbow at the 20-minute mark of the second period. Merrimack was not able to cash in on the man advantage with fresh ice as Tirone and the UNH penalty kill came up with a stop and then Vela put his team up 2-0 after he fired a puck in between the faceoff dots that squeaked past Vogler.

At the 12:02 mark of the third period, Chris LeBlanc came up the right-wing side with speed and backhanded a puck towards Tirone that saw linemate Derek Petti tap in the rebound to cut UNH’s lead to 2-1.

Merrimack tried the extra attacker with less than a minute to play in regulation, but Vela took the puck down the ice to salt the game away with an empty-net tally.

“I thought we played really well,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said. “I thought that was a good college hockey game. Our situation hasn’t changed before the game — we have to win two to move on. I think we play like that again, we win.”

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