NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – In a battle of two of the nation’s premier defensive teams, one would expect a close battle and that is what fans saw on Saturday afternoon at Lawler Arena.
In the final game before the Christmas holiday break, the No. 11/12 Union Dutchmen ground out a second-straight victory by a 3-1 score over the No. 5 Merrimack Warriors. UC is on a five-game unbeaten streak (3-0-2) and has not been defeated since Nov. 12 in a 4-0 loss to Yale at Messa Rink.
“I thought it was one of our better games this first half,” said Union first-year head coach and Providence College alumnus Rick Bennett, whose team improved to 9-3-5 on the season. “It is kind of fun to see some of the stuff that our staff talks about before the game actually executed.”
Both goaltenders — Cannata and Union’s Troy Grosenick — were tested early on in the first period, but the Dutchmen were first to crack the scoreboard at the 6:13 mark.
Sophomore Daniel Carr was parked out in front of Cannata’s net and poked home a second-effort rebound, his eighth goal of the season, off an assist from senior linemate Kelly Zajac.
Penalty kills doomed the Warriors throughout the first period as they were charged with four separate infractions, including three individually from Merrimack junior blue liner Kyle Bigos. Carr’s goal was scored on the power play, one of Union’s seven shots on the man-advantage in the opening stanza.
“After one period, I put down one word: Purpose,” Merrimack head coach Dennehy mentioned. “Throughout the game, they played with a purpose and it was as if they knew what they wanted to do. They were ready to do it from the get-go, which almost frees you up.”
“I thought we had some indecision at times, probably most evident on the power play…We were good at times, but not long enough. I thought they played how they wanted to play longer than we did.”
In the second period, Carr had a golden opportunity to double Union’s lead, but Cannata was equal to the task as he came across the crease to steer the puck aside and keep his team’s deficit at 1-0.
Throughout the period, the Dutchmen sustained solid pressure in the offensive zone and were able to cash in on a second goal.
The Warriors tied the game earlier in the period, at the 15:06 mark, when sophomore Shawn Bates put a soft turn-around shot past Grosenick’s upper glove side to tie the game at 1-1.
Initially, the shot looked like it was not aimed at goal, but Bates stopped and fired a harmless puck into the net for his second of the year.
In the latter stages of the period, the Warriors had a strong chance to tie the game as Rhett Bly’s breakaway was stopped. On the very next shift, Union jumped back in front on the second goal of the season from rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere.
The Dutchmen streaked back into the offensive zone and the Florida native roofed a beautiful snap shot past Cannata for the go-ahead score — a power-play tally at 17:59.
“I think it was probably just a great individual effort by Matt Bodie,” said Bennett. “The 5-on-3 has been struggling a little bit. I think teams are catching on to what we are doing and we made a little adjustment. I just think that was just a nice play…It’s a poise play…and that’s why he’s on the power play.”
It was a very strong third period on both sides, but neither team was able to find the back of the net until Zajac iced the victory with an empty-net goal with just 12 seconds remaining, firing a wide-open attempt from the neutral zone official’s crease.
The Warriors had 13 total attempts in the period, including several lead passes, but Grosenick and the Dutchmen defense was there to attack the lanes and keep the Merrimack offense off the board again.
Union has not lost a single game this season when leading after the first and second period and is a combined 15-0-4 when both of those scenarios occur.
The Dutchmen held a strong advantage in both total chances (68-39) and shots on goal (34-20) as the Warriors dropped their second home game of the season in North Andover. Merrimack’s 20 shots on goal were a new season low.
Before Saturday’s defeat, the Warriors had not dropped a non-league home game since October 24, 2006. The Warriors were 12-0 over the last five seasons at Lawler against non-conference teams and 9-0-2 in all non-conference meetings over the last three seasons.
The Warriors oppose their third ECAC foe in a row on Dec. 30 when they take on St. Lawrence at the Ledyard National Bank Classic at Thompson Arena in Hanover, N.H.
Last week, Merrimack played Colgate to a 1-1 tie in their home rink in Hamilton, N.Y. and has the possibility to face another ECAC opponent in the second game the tournament at Dartmouth after Christmas.
“I thought both teams were very good,” said Dennehy of playing two of the top ECAC teams in Colgate last Saturday and the Dutchmen. “Both teams had over 30 shots on us and called on our goalie [Joe Cannata] to make some big saves, so I think they are both very good teams. They play fast, they pressure you all over the ice.”