BOSTON -- The Boston University Terriers have a pulse after all. Barely clinging to their top-20 ranking with a .500 record, the No. 19 Terriers put it all together Tuesday night to pin a 5-2 loss on No. 17 Merrimack at Agganis Arena.
"It was nice to get a W, it was nice to get a W at home, [and] it was nice to get some goals. I liked our team tonight. We had a lot of guys play well, obviously," said BU coach Jack Parker. "In general, it was a solid effort against a very, very good team."
The win completed a BU season sweep over the Warriors and allowed the Terriers (15-14-2, 12-9-2 Hockey East) to claw to within a point of Merrimack (14-12-6, 12-8-3 HE) in the Hockey East standings and within two points of Boston College, UMass Lowell, idle Providence and New Hampshire. Boston College had a chance to break the three-way tie for first place but lost to Lowell, 4-2, creating a four-way logjam atop the standings.
"[The clock] will strike midnight and it'll be the 27th tomorrow and we'll be one point out of first place with four [games] to go," said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy afterward. "We got a day off, so we'll put this behind us and move on."
BU is the only Hockey East team that Merrimack has failed to pry a point from this season.
"I don't know that we've played great against BU yet this year. I think they've done a pretty good job against us," said Dennehy. "They've gotten a lot of easy goals against us, which we usually don't give up. And they're very difficult to score against. At least we've found it that way. Maybe we just bring out the best in them."
In a makeup game rescheduled due to the Feb. 9 blizzard, the two squads entered the night -- the 100th meeting all time between the teams -- deadlocked in the all-important Pairwise Rankings at No. 22. Since only 16 teams make the NCAA tourney field (including automatic bids for conference champs), the game was critical for both squads. But Parker's team, once ranked as high as No. 6, has been in a tailspin, losing two last weekend to No. 12 UMass Lowell and registering only three wins in 14 games since New Year's Day (3-9-2).
Conversely, Merrimack was 7-2-2 in its past 11 games and was atop Hockey East as recently as Sunday, when Boston College edged past the Warriors in overtime. But on Tuesday night, BU was the aggressor from the start and was the better squad throughout the game.
"We started out with a pretty good pace," said Parker. "I thought we really generated some offense down low, and some time of possession down low, too. That really gave us a big jump."
Sam Marotta, Merrimack's fine junior goaltender, was tested early. BU captain Wade Megan collected a terrific stretch pass from Sahir Gill at the Warriors blue line and raced in on the Merrimack goal, but Marotta stoned him with a dandy right-pad stop.
After Marotta stopped the first dozen BU shots, the Terriers got lucky on No. 13 and a super-solo-effort by sophomore Evan Rodriguez. Carrying the puck into the Merrimack zone with speed, Rodriguez shifted to his backhand, got a shoulder on Warriors defender Jordan Heywood and slipped a shot underneath Marotta's left arm for a 1-0 Terriers lead at 9:47.
Less than two minutes later, BU went up 2-0. Megan took a pass from Garrett Noonan in the high slot, juked Merrimack's Quinn Gould to the ice, stepped around and fired a wrister that deflected off linemate Gill and beat Marotta underneath his blocker.
BU's Cason Hohmann gave the Terriers a 3-0 bulge when he redirected Matt Nieto's spin-o-rama attempt past a helpless Marotta and just inside the left post at 15:41.
"I think the puck jumped in the net for us," said Parker when asked what the difference was between the win against Merrimack and recent struggles against Lowell and Maine. "We got some pucks, made some nice plays, got some goals. That took the pressure off. We've been playing a lot of games where the puck has not gone in.
"We haven't been getting any puck bounces," he said. "We got a few tonight."
Dennehy replaced Marotta (16 saves) with sophomore Rasmus Tirronen to start the second period, but the Terriers kept blitzing the Merrimack net. At 5:49, freshman Danny O'Regan charged down the right side before curling a centering pass to Nieto, who buried the puck behind a sprawling Tirronen for a 4-0 BU margin for his 10th of the campaign. No. 11 came at 12:38, when BU's Sean Escobedo sprung Nieto on a clean breakaway with a tremendous half-ice outlet pass, and the junior from Long Beach, Calif., roofed it over Tirronen's glove.
"We were confident with the puck. We weren't turning the puck over. We weren't trying to do too much with the puck," said Parker. "One of the problems for us is we've been playing games trying not to lose. I don't think we went out there tonight trying not to lose. We went out trying to win tonight."
Merrimack's Ben Bahe nearly got the Warriors on the board at 15:25 when his wrister beat BU goaltender Matt O'Connor (32 saves), but the shot caromed off the crossbar.
"In general, I was real happy with my team, I was real happy with my goaltender," said Parker. "In the second period, he came up with some big saves to keep them off the scoreboard."
The Terriers had opportunities to extend their lead in the third period but misfired on several open chances. Merrimack's Heywood ruined O'Connor's shutout bid at 9:01, snapping a shot through a screen and over the BU goalie's left shoulder for a power-play tally.
At 10:54, Heywood struck again, taking advantage of a BU defensive miscue. Merrimack's senior captain pounced on a loose puck in the low slot and snapped it again over O'Connor's glove to get the Warriors within three, 5-2. But any chance of a comeback got derailed by a series of late penalties by the Warriors, leading to an extended two-man power play for BU. Tirronen (14 saves) made some sparkling stops to prevent the Terriers from running Merrimack out of the building.
"We don't take penalties, they call them," said Dennehy.
The Terriers, though, maintained their poise and finished the game not only with a pulse, but possibly a new lease on life. They sit in sixth place in Hockey East but only two points out of first with two weeks remaining.
"I told my team, we have four of our last five games at home at the end of the season," said Parker. "If you want to have home ice [for the Hockey East tournament], you're going to have to win these games. If you don't win these games, we don't want home ice, if you can't win at home."