BOSTON -- The No. 6 Merrimack Warriors came within a last-minute high-sticking call of breaking a 14-year-old hex at Boston College's Conte Forum on Sunday afternoon. Instead, the Warriors had to be content with a single point as they parlayed a late goal in regulation to tie the No. 4 Eagles, 2-2, before a crowd of 7,114.
Mark Dennehy's Warriors knew they had their work cut out for them when they made the short drive down I-93 for Sunday's matinee. Despite Merrimack's recent renaissance, lofty national ranking and winning last year's league series (2-1) against the Eagles, the Warriors haven't been able to collect a win on BC's home ice since Halloween 1997 (going 0-22-1 during that stretch).
Making matters worse, the Warriors, who lost a tough 4-2 decision to Boston University on Friday, have been in a bit of a tailspin, going 2-4-2 in their last eight games. The trend continued Sunday, but getting a last-minute goal from freshman Connor Toomey -- his second of the game -- enabled Merrimack to steal a point at Conte.
"It's always good when you come back and tie a game," Dennehy said. "I thought we played well overall, both teams. If we were to come away without a point, it probably wouldn't have been justice. So I guess justice, in Merrimack's eyes, was served."
"We kept the intensity the whole game," said Toomey, who was voted the game's first star. "It was nice to put three periods together. It was a good feeling to have everybody on the same page and going all 60 minutes."
The matchup between Boston College (13-7-1; 9-4-1 HE) and Merrimack (11-4-4; 7-3-2 HE) featured the type of hard-hitting, close-checking action and superb goaltending you'd expect from two Top 10 squads.
"Two pretty good hockey teams went at it this afternoon," BC Jerry York said. "I thought the goaltenders at both ends were very, very strong."
The Warriors threw everything but the kitchen sink in front of the BC shooters, blocking five shots in the first period alone. Both goalies -- Merrimack senior Joe Cannata and BC freshman Brian Billett -- were stout throughout the opening 20 minutes. BC twice had the Warriors on their heels with clean 2-on-1 breaks, but poor passes prevented any quality scoring bids.
"You've to pass the puck sometimes to get a better opportunity to score, and I think that it's got to be a balance [between passing, and taking the shot]," York said. "We created some good opportunities by passing the puck, and then we just missed on the shot."
Billett, who got a pep talk on Friday from visiting Vancouver Canucks goaltender Cory Schneider (a former BC All-American who backstopped a 4-3 win over the Bruins on Saturday), then stoned Toomey on a clean power-play bid.
Both offenses started to find their groove in the middle period. The Eagles solved Cannata at the 47-second mark of the second as BC's Paul Carey took a pass from Brian Dumoulin, juked Merrimack defender Karl Stollery and drove hard to the outside. Once he got his shoulder inside Stollery, Carey flicked a shot that found its way over Cannata, giving BC a 1-0 lead.
"If anybody can figure out a defense for that, please describe it to me, and we'll use it," Dennehy said.
Carey nearly doubled his input moments later when he redirected a feed from linemate Bill Arnold. The puck glanced off Carey's stick and got behind Cannata, but clanked off the right post.
The Eagles did double up at 5:10. With the Warriors on the power play, BC's Barry Almeida drifted into the right corner of the Merrimack zone with the puck, and when Stollery didn't pressure him, the BC senior found an unmarked Steven Whitney alone in front. Almeida saucered a nice pass onto Whitney's stick, and the junior from Reading, Mass., hesitated slightly before snapping a shot top shelf over Cannata's glove.
Merrimack halved the lead at 7:48, when Ryan Flanigan found Toomey alone at the left post. Flanigan hit his center with a perfect cross-crease pass, and the freshman from Billerica, Mass., rammed it past Billett for the Warriors' first goal and his sixth of the season.
Merrimack's penchant for penalties gave the Eagles a number of chances in the second half of the middle frame, but BC couldn't convert on the man advantage. Twice the Eagles had Cannata down and out, but couldn't pop the puck behind him. The second time, just past the 14-minute mark, Almeida squandered a great chance when he lost the handle all alone in the low slot.
"We had great offensive chances," York said. "It was hard for me to believe it was just a two-goal output for us. But goalies have a stake in that, and I thought he [Cannata] played well."
The third period featured several thumping body checks and free-flowing end-to-end action, but few first-rate scoring opportunities as both squads employed a bend-but-don't-break defensive scheme.
"We kind of put ourselves in jail with three penalties in the third period," York said. "We had a 2-1 lead, and certainly would have liked to get some momentum, but we had to go back" to kill penalties.
At 17:30, with the Warriors on a power play, Jordan Heywood sent a wrister from the right point that just skittered wide of the BC net. Just 80 seconds later, at 18:50, with Cannata pulled for the extra attacker, Heywood sent another long-range prayer from the point, and this time it was answered. Stationed at the right side of the crease, Toomey tipped it past Billett to knot the game, 2-2, and send the match into overtime.
"It was kind of a knuckle puck, and I just got my stick on it," Toomey said.
In the extra session, Cannata came up big three times, showing why he's in the running for the Hobey Baker award. First the Merrimack goaltender stoned Kevin Hayes on a wraparound attempt, then gobbled up a deflection by Almeida. BC captain Tommy Cross looked to give the Eagles the win when he fired a slapper from the high slot, but Cannata turned it aside.
Merrimack thought it had won the game with 12.9 seconds left, when Kyle Singleton poked the puck past a prone Billett. But referee Scott Hansen immediately waved off the goal, calling the Warriors' Rhett Bly for playing the puck with a high stick. The call withstood a video review, and Merrimack escaped with the tie when Carey's last-second bid sailed wide left.
"I think our coaching staff has a pretty good understanding of how good this team can be," Dennehy said. "I'm not so sure if our guys have that same understanding, and what they need to do to be that good. Today was a really good step in that direction.
"I thought we did a lot of really good things, and things I knew we were capable of doing. If the coaching staff is the jockey, we had to use the whip just a little more this week than we have in the past."