The Merrimack College Warriors and the New Hampshire Wildcats traded 4-0 scores in the first two games of their first-round series at Lawler Arena. They took to the ice one more time to determine who would move onto the quarterfinals of the Hockey East Tournament. The teams skated well throughout, taking hard hits and dishing them out. In the end, Merrimack could not beat New Hampshire on their home ice two years in a row to open the conference tournament.
The Wildcats got off to a hot start, with Michael McNicholas taking a pass from Hobey Baker candidate Tyler Kelleher and putting it by a sprawling Collin Delia in Merrimack’s net only 1:14 into the game. UNH got another goal only five minutes later when Frankie Cefalu put in a rebound by Delia to make it 2-0.
Merrimack got their offense going shortly after when Hampus Gustafsson tipped in a power play goal with the shaft of his stick to cut New Hampshire’s lead in half. Unfortunately for most of the Lawler Rink crowd, New Hampshire converted on another chance to silence the rowdy Warriors fans. Merrimack turned the puck over in their own zone and Patrick Grasso netted the third Wildcat goal of the period, making the score 3-1 at the break.
Neither team scored in the second period, but the play was no less intense or entertaining. Merrimack dominated the shot counter, outshooting the Wildcats 14-6 in the 2nd, but Danny Tirone played one of his best games this season, making 44 saves and killing many Warrior power plays. Merrimack had to kill some penalties of their own to stay in the game. They killed two power plays in the second period and threatened shots but didn’t finish on the chances.
There was one concerning moment when Dylan Maller was flattened on a hard hit and had to leave the ice with less than two minutes left to go in the second. He had to be helped off by the trainers and couldn’t put any weight on his right foot. He did manage to return and gave the Wildcats a lift they would need in the third period.
Jace Hennig was called for an interference penalty in the final minutes of the 2nd period and had to serve the last half of it to open the 3rd. In the first few minutes of the new frame, Tyler Irvine was called for tripping. On the ensuing five on three power play, Tyler Kelleher scored his 23rd goal of the season to give New Hampshire a 4-1 lead.
Merrimack still had time to make a comeback and they did so, capitalizing on a power play. Tirone was called for a delay of game when he dove for a puck and knocked the net off its moorings. Derek Petti scored to cut the lead down to two with 12:06 to play. Merrimack then peppered Tirone with 18 shots in the 3rd period, coming close to scoring again a few times, but never getting the game closer than 4-2.
With 2:09 left, the Warriors pulled Delia to get an extra skater on the ice. Less than a minute later, Justin Salvaggio matched his linemate, Kelleher, with an empty net goal to end the scoring and the Merrimack Warriors season with a 5-2 margin.
Merrimack finishes the season with a 15-16-6 record, highlighted by the program’s first sweep of Boston University in their history and a 6-3 victory over the Boston College Eagles at Conte Forum. They played spoiler for the Hockey East and surprised people, rising from the second worst record in the Hockey East near the midseason point to hosting an opening round series. Hampus Gustafsson and Chris LeBlanc are the only graduating seniors on the Warriors.
After the game, both Michael McNicholas and Wildcat coach Dick Umile credited the Warrior’s performance in the series and were relieved that they did not have to play in that difficult rink again this year. Both praised the skills of Tyler Kelleher and noted how he has improved McNicholas’ and Salvaggio’s play as the season has progressed. Umile described the UNH season as frustrating but satisfying after the weekend’s results.
With the New Hampshire victory, the quarterfinal matchups of the Hockey East tournament were determined. Providence vs Notre Dame and Vermont vs Boston College were set after Saturday’s proceedings. Sunday’s game determined that the Wildcats will travel to Lowell to play the top-seeded Riverhawks at the Tsongas Center, while the Boston University Terriers will host the Northeastern University Huskies at Agganis Arena. All four series will begin on Friday the 10th.