In what could be a critical blow to Merrimack’s hopes for home ice in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs, the Warriors fell to UMass, 5-2, on Tuesday night at the Mullins Center.
Merrimack falls back into 11th place in Hockey East with the loss, with the Minutemen jumping the Warriors in the standings. Merrimack now has the weekend off, while the four teams in front of them in the standings for the final home-ice spot in the Hockey East playoffs all have at least one game in hand (two teams had two games in hand).
UMass now also owns the tie-breaker with Merrimack with the win on Tuesday; Vermont also owns the tie-breaker against the Warriors and the UNH tie-breaker will be decided on Feb. 17, when the Warriors close out their regular-season series with the Wildcats at Lawler Arena.
“We got off to a good start,” said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy. “The first five minutes, I thought we played pretty well.”
John Leonard put the Minutemen on the board at the 12:15 mark of the first period, picking up a puck at the attacking blue line after the Warriors failed to clear the zone, Leonard deked two defenders and fired a laser that found the back of the net.
UMass would double that lead a few minutes later on a power-play goal by Niko Rufo.
The score would remain 2-0 until late in the second period when Ludvig Larsson took a pass from Brett Seney on the rush and was able to use his quick release from the right circle to beat UMass goalie Matt Murray.
Larsson’s goal sent the Warriors into the locker room with just a one goal deficit, but UMass would score a pair of goals in the first minute of the third period to make it a 4-1 lead.
“I like how we crawled back into the game to make it 2-1,” Dennehy said. “Then to start the third we had a couple of unfortuitous bounces. One goal is a blocked shot on a dump that leads to a breakaway and then we put it in our own net. That was the difference.”
Merrimack wouldn’t go away, however. Larsson scored his second goal of the game at the 8:11 mark of the third period, looking off Seney on a 2-on-1 and beating Murray blocker side.
But the Warriors would commit a costly penalty just 15 seconds later and Jake McLaughlin made the Warriors pay, scoring on the power play to give UMass a three-goal lead back with 10:24 remaining in the game.
“We outshot them 11-6 in the third,” Dennehy said. “We had plenty of chances. When you’re chasing the game it makes it harder. I thought, in terms of zone play, we had the better of it for most of the night. There were some ebbs and flows but we had 33 shots.”
Larsson posted his third career two-goal performance and second this year; he also lit the lamp twice against Providence on Nov. 18, 2017.
Merrimack will have 10 days off before returning to action next Saturday (Feb. 16) at home against New Hampshire.
UMass 5, Merrimack 2 at Mullins Center Merrimack (8-17-4): 0-1-1—2 Massachusetts (12-16-1): 2-0-3—5 1st Period Scoring - 1, UMA John Leonard/9 (Niko Rufo/6, Austin Albrecht/3) 12:15 2, UMA Niko Rufo/8 (Philip Lagunov/7, Josh Couturier/9) 15:50 (PP) Penalties - Alex Carle, MER (Interference) 14:17 2nd Period Scoring - 3, MER Ludvig Larsson/10 (Jace Hennig/14) 19:30 Penalties - Sami Tavernier, MER (Slashing) 8:06 3rd Period Scoring - 4, UMA John Leonard/10 0:26 (GW) 5, UMA Jake Horton/1 (Brett Boeing/6) 1:13 6, MER Ludvig Larsson/11 8:11 7, UMA Jake McLaughlin/3 (Josh Couturier/10, Austin Plevy/5) 9:36 (PP) Penalties - Ryan Cook, MER (Tripping) 1:30; Jake Gaudet, UMA (Interference) 5:52; Logan Coomes, MER (Slashing) 8:26; Derek Petti, MER (Tripping) 18:26 Merrimack Goaltending - Drew Vogler (60:00, 25 shots, 20 saves, 5 GA) Massachusetts Goaltending - Matt Murray (59:53, 33 shots, 31 saves, 2 GA); Empty Net (0:07, 0 GA) Win - Matt Murray, UMA (5-10-1). Loss - Drew Vogler, MER (1-7-2). Shots On Goal - MER 9-13-11=33; UMA 6-13-6=25 Power Plays - MER 0 of 1; UMA 2 of 5 Penalties - MER 5 (10 min); UMA 1 (2 min) New Records - Massachusetts 12-16-1, Merrimack 8-17-4 Three Stars: 1. John Leonard (Massachusetts) 2. Niko Rufo (Massachusetts) 3. Jake Horton (Massachusetts) Referees: Jamie Koharski, Terrence Murphy Linesmen: Kevin Briganti, Jeff McCorkle