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History not repeated, as Merrimack tops UMass in home opener

NORTH ANDOVER — It’s funny how history has a way of repeating itself.

Last season at home against UMass, Merrimack held a one-goal lead late in the third period before goals from Ty Farmer and Cal Kiefiuk in the final five minutes sunk the Warriors with a one-goal loss. Sunday night at Lawler Arena, the Warriors had a one-goal lead late in the third period against UMass again, but history wasn’t repeated exactly this time around. The Warriors found a way to hold on for a 3-2 win to split the weekend series with the No. 8-ranked Minutemen.

“Tonight we were able to get it done,” said Merrimack head coach Scott Borek. “I was pleased with our effort and our goalie gave us a chance. We got into shot lanes and we defended very well. We spent time in our own end but we didn’t allow them to get to Grade-A. Our guys gutted it out.

“In the third, we handled the emotional pressure well. (UMass) comes after you. They play really big with the puck and they’re hard to defend. We stayed on them. Last year in this building, against the same team, in the same scenario, we got out-muscled and pushed around and they ended up scoring and won the game. Tonight our older players battled and gave our younger players a chance to follow their leadership.”

After a goal was waved off for goalie contact in the game’s opening minutes, the Warriors were able to capitalize and open the scoring at the 11:07 mark of the first period. On the power play freshman Alex Jefferies was along the wall and found a lane to defenseman Zach Vinnell at the top of the zone. Vinnell stepped up and rifled a shot that made its way through traffic and past UMass goalie Matt Murray.

Merrimack had a 1-0 lead entering the second period but it didn’t take the Minutemen long to tie the score. Just 27 seconds into the second frame, Carson Gicewicz closed in on Merrimack goalie Zach Borgiel with two of his teammates and looked for the shot that beat the freshman blocker side.

The Warriors responded in short order. Jefferies raced down the right side after taking the puck off the wall from Chase Gresock and used his feet to go around Gianfranco Cassaro and to the net, where he beat Murray with a backhander as he cut to the middle.

“It’s good to get that off my back,” Jefferies said. “It’s good to get the win.”

Jefferies had points in Merrimack’s first three goals of the season, assisting on Gresock’s goal Saturday afternoon and then setting up Vinnell on Sunday before scoring himself. He’s been playing with veteran linemates Gresock and Logan Drevitch.

“They’ve helped me a lot on the ice and off the ice,” Jefferies said. “It’s a new experience for me, going from prep school to college and it’s a big adjustment. They’ve been huge helping me along. We have great chemistry together. They’re great players and great to play with.”

Added Borek, “You’ve seen what (Jefferies) done so far and it’s great to see him have an impact. His confidence level is high. He loves it. He’s a hockey player. He’s aggressive about trying to make his team successful.”

A few minutes after Jefferies’ goal, it was Merrimack-killer Cal Kiefiuk who scored on the power play to once again tie the score.

Kiefiuk had the game-winner in the game against the Warriors last season inside of the final minute.

Just after the 10-minute mark of the second period, Vinnell snapped a shot from the top of the slot and Patrick Holway tipped in front of the net to give the Warriors a lead once again. This time, they wouldn’t relinquish it.

“The way we won the gamge was important for our team,” Borek said. “This was getting rid of some demons. We stayed aggressive despite being in our own end a lot.

“The message before the game tonight was to attack the net. It doesn’t hurt when your freshman right win blows past a D to score a goal. That gives everyone some confidence. But I think we know that we can come from behind if we need to and we know that we can score goals. We’re in every game because this group can play offensively.”

The kids are alright

Jefferies’ three-point weekend will make headlines, but Borek was happy with the contributions from his other four rookies as well. Conor Lovett, like Jefferies, is making the jump from prep hockey to college hockey and goaltender Zach Borgiel was forced into quick action on Saturday before getting his first start on Sunday.

“Conor is a real physical player,” Borek said. “He gets over the top of people well and he’s hard to play against. Filip Karlsson-Tagtstrom hasn’t played a game in almost two years and he was really good this weekend. He was better on film after we re-watched last night’s game. Today he was very good and he caused some turnovers. He hunts pucks and he played well. And then we had a freshman goalie who made some big plays. Kevin Sadovski didn’t play a ton but he was great with our team and he played well in the minutes we asked him to play.”

Hard battles down low

Merrimack held UMass to just one shot on goal in the third period. UMass out-attempted the Warriors 53-43 but Merrimack players blocked 19 shots on top of the 17 that were stopped by Borgiel. On the weekend, the Warriors blocked a whopping 44 shot attempts, and that’s without sophomore defenseman Declan Carlile, who was near the top of the league in that category last season.

“Our structure behind our red line was much better,” said Borek. “So many of their shots were wide because we were in lanes. They passed up on some shots because those lanes were covered.

“This weekend I thought (Liam Dennison) was one of our best D. He defended well, he stayed on pucks and he broke the puck out well.”

Borgiel said that defensive effort made it easy on him in his first career start.

“We locked it down,” he said. “We were committed to the defensive side of the game. The guys did a great job boxing out in front of me and limiting second chances. If I see the puck, I should make the save and they allowed me to see the puck.”

NOTES: Merrimack wore their home white jerseys while UMass wore their road maroons. … Sunday’s win marked the first time the Warriors won their home opener since 2015, when they beat Clarkson, 7-1. … After losing the faceoff battle handily last night, Merrimack went 29-26 on the dot tonight. … Chase Gresock and Alex Jefferies led the team with seven shot attempts while UMass defenseman Marc Del Gaizo led all players with eight attempts.

Merrimack 3, #8 UMass 2
at Lawler Arena
Massachusetts (2-3-1): 0-2-0—2
Merrimack (1-1-0): 1-2-0—3
1st Period 
Scoring - 1, MER Zach Vinnell/1 (Alex Jefferies/2, Patrick Holway/1) 11:07 (PP) 
Penalties - Philip Lagunov, UMA (Hitting from Behind) 2:58; Marc Del Gaizo, UMA (Hooking) 10:13; Ben Brar, MER (Hooking) 12:27; Oliver MacDonald, UMA (Slashing) 17:18 
2nd Period 
Scoring - 2, UMA Carson Gicewicz/1 (Oliver Chau/4, Jake Gaudet/2) 0:27 
3, MER Alex Jefferies/1 (Chase Gresock/1, Logan Drevitch/2) 3:51 
4, UMA Cal Kiefiuk/2 (Marc Del Gaizo/4, Aaron Bohlinger/3) 6:49 (PP) 
5, MER Patrick Holway/1 (Zach Vinnell/1, Filip Forsmark/1) 10:06 (GW) 
Penalties - Conor Lovett, MER (Hooking) 5:55; Tyler Heidt, MER (Tripping) 15:09 
3rd Period 
Scoring - None 
Penalties - Carson Gicewicz, UMA (Interference) 0:44; Jacob Modry, MER (Slashing) 3:01; Oliver MacDonald, UMA (Tripping) 6:51; Matthew Kessel, UMA (Cross-Checking) 17:13 
Massachusetts Goaltending - Matt Murray (59:30, 22 shots, 19 saves, 3 GA); Empty Net (0:30, 0 GA)
Merrimack Goaltending - Zachary Borgiel (59:47, 19 shots, 17 saves, 2 GA); Empty Net (0:13, 0 GA)
Win - Zachary Borgiel, MER (1-1-0). Loss - Matt Murray, UMA (2-2-0). 
Shots On Goal - UMA 7-11-1=19; MER 11-7-4=22 
Power Plays - UMA 1 of 4; MER 1 of 6 
Penalties - UMA 6 (12 min); MER 4 (8 min)

Mike McMahon is in his 13th year covering Merrimack College for The Eagle Tribune and is the founder and managing editor of The Mack Report. Mike also serves on staff as a senior writer at College Hockey News. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcMahonCHN

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