NORTH ANDOVER — Merrimack College finds itself in playoff mode despite the calendar still reading late-January. There’s only nine games left in the regular season following last night’s 2-1 loss to Vermont at Lawler Arena, and a slow start out of the gates this past October has the Warriors clawing for positive playoff positioning.
“This is playoff hockey,” said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy. “I’m already growing my playoff beard. We’re in playoff hockey now.”
Nothing comes easy in the playoffs, as Merrimack found that out last night.
The Warriors took a 1-0 lead in the first period before two straight UVM goals in the second period gave the last-place Catamounts a one-goal victory.
“We didn’t compete hard enough,” Dennehy said. “They beat us in a lot of puck battles and they defended their net well. Their guy made some saves, but we didn’t shoot the puck nearly enough. We wanted it to be easier than it was.”
Brett Seney gave Merrimack the 1-0 lead at the 9:34 mark of the first period, on the power play. Seney pulled off a familiar play where he skated the radius of the faceoff circle and tucked a shot over the shoulder of Vermont goaltender Stefanos Lekkas.
Merrimack took the lead into the locker room, but the Warriors weren’t feeling great about it. Vermont outshot Merrimack 15-8 in the first period.
“The period we won was our worst period,” Dennehy said.
Merrimack saw its lead vanish in the second period when Alex Esposito scored to tie the score at the 4:56 mark. Then, with just 2:10 remaining in the period, Ross Colton was left all alone near the UVM bench, collecting the puck and beating Craig Pantano (32 saves) 1-on-1.
“We were on the puck but we skated right by it,” Dennehy said. “Then another guy went to go pressure it, and the puck went by him. After that we’re just scrambling. We had a chance to put pressure on the puck and we didn’t stop and start. It’s playoff hockey, every little thing matters.”
Vermont snapped a nine-game winless streak last weekend with a win over UMass Lowell. The Catamounts nearly beat Lowell the night before as well, jumping about to a 2-0 lead before Lowell battled back for the victory.
“It’s Hockey East, and anybody can beat anybody,” Dennehy said. “As a coach, you know how good the teams are. … We had two breakdowns. After the second goal we got away from what we wanted to do, and I think we felt sorry for ourselves.”
Merrimack hosts Vermont again tonight (7 p.m.) to wrap up the two-game series. The Warriors will visit Maine for two games next weekend.
“It’s going to be a tight-checking game,” Dennehy said. “From here on out, that’s the type of game it’s going to be. They only got two (goals), and they were nice plays but they were also big mistakes on our part. It’s going to be a grind-it-out game and we need to recognize we’re in those sooner. It took us too long.”
Vermont 2, Merrimack 1 Vermont (6-15-4): 0-2-0—2 Merrimack (7-14-4): 1-0-0—1 1st Period Scoring - 1, MER Brett Seney/9 (Jared Kolquist/14, Sami Tavernier/8) 9:34 (PP) Penalties - Vlad Dzhioshvili, VER (Roughing) 9:15 2nd Period Scoring - 2, VER Alex Esposito/7 (Christian Evers/4, Ross Colton/3) 4:56 3, VER Ross Colton/13 (Matt Alvaro/5, Alex Esposito/7) 17:50 (GW) Penalties - Sami Tavernier, MER (Slashing) 5:48 3rd Period Scoring - None Penalties - Alfred Larsson, MER (Holding) 8:18; Brett Seney, MER (Interference) 12:49 Vermont Goaltending - Stefanos Lekkas (60:00, 24 shots, 23 saves, 1 GA) Merrimack Goaltending - Craig Pantano (58:18, 34 shots, 32 saves, 2 GA); Empty Net (1:42, 0 GA) Win - Stefanos Lekkas, VER (6-14-3). Loss - Craig Pantano, MER (7-8-2). Shots On Goal - VER 15-12-7=34; MER 8-3-13=24 Power Plays - VER 0 of 3; MER 1 of 1 Penalties - VER 1 (2 min); MER 3 (6 min) New Records - Vermont 6-15-4, Merrimack 7-14-4 Three Stars: 1. Ross Colton (Vermont) 2. Alex Esposito (Vermont) 3. Brett Seney (Merrimack) Referees: Kevin Keenan, Tim Low Linesmen: Nicholas Briganti, Kevin Briganti