BOSTON -- When BU coach Jack Parker announced his retirement Monday, he got a laugh from the assembled crowd with his characterization of the Terriers' hockey program.
"I always talk about BU being a family," said Parker. "I've got two daughters, and 226 sons. The team I have right now are my youngest sons. And I'm not having any more children."
Those "youngest sons" made sure their coach would have another game at the helm, and another trip to the TD Garden, by knocking the Merrimack Warriors out of the Hockey East playoffs with a scintillating 5-3 victory before 3,043 at Agganis Arena on Saturday. But the Terriers (20-15-2) did it the hard way, three times fighting back from one-goal deficits to finally take the lead for good in the third period.
"I thought everybody played hard," said Parker. "I thought both teams played really smart hockey, real intense hockey. You could tell that Merrimack knew this was it for them. They had to get going. They put 42 shots on net, 20 in the second period. They kept coming at us all night long."
For Merrimack (15-17-6), the loss was the fifth straight to BU, and a bitter pill for coach Mark Dennehy despite the improved play of his squad.
"I thought we played much better than we did last night [a 3-0 loss]," said Dennehy. "We gave ourselves a chance to win. Some great efforts by a lot of people. Sam [Marotta, Merrimack's goaltender] made some really big saves when he needed to. It just wasn't enough."
The win -- Parker's last on the rink that bears his name -- gave the third-seeded Terriers a sweep of their quarterfinal series against the Warriors, and a date with archrival Boston College in the league semifinals on Friday. Parker is seeking his eighth league championship, and 25th invitation to the NCAA tournament, during his swan song. And although Parker holds a 48-38-7 record all-time over his longtime rival, BC coach Jerry York, the two giants of college hockey are dead even, 37-37-7, since York returned to The Heights.
"It was kind of weird tonight," said Parker. "This is my last game in a BU rink. It hasn't dawned on me. It didn't dawn on me in the press conference [Monday], because I knew I had to go to practice the next day. It was weird. But it was nice to win."
The Warriors came out intent on spoiling the Terriers' party, blitzing the BU end in the opening minutes. An ill-advised elbowing penalty to Warrior Connor Toomey gave BU the game's first power play, but Merrimack's Marotta (29) came up big, blocking Sahir Gill's one-timer off a cross-crease feed at the bottom of the right faceoff circle.
At 9:28, Marotta came up big again, first stopping Wade Megan point-blank after a nifty toe-drag move by the BU captain, and then employing an unorthodox snow-angel technique to deny Gill on the rebound.
The Warriors broke on top with a minute left in the opening period, with BU's Evan Rodriguez in the box for interference. Junior Shawn Bates, carrying the puck into the Terriers' end with speed, split a pair of BU defenders before deking out goalie Sean Maguire (39 saves). The big freshman netminder managed to get an arm on Bates' shot, but a second effort by the forward from Saskatchewan, Alberta, got the puck across the line for the power-play strike and a 1-0 Merrimack lead. It was the first time that Merrimack took the lead in five games against the Terriers this year, and ended Maguire's shutout streak at 1:51:22 over three games, the fifth-longest in BU history.
Marotta again stymied the BU power play to open the second period, as the Terriers attacked the Merrimack net with Brendan Ellis serving two minutes for tripping. But just after Ellis got back on the ice, BU junior Matt Nieto tied the game, 1-1, with his 100th career point. Driving down the slot, Nieto snuck behind Merrimack defender Justin Mansfield, took a perfect pass from freshman Danny O'Regan, and tapped it behind Marotta.
Undaunted, the Warriors regained the lead just three minutes later. With Terrier Patrick MacGregor cooling his heels on a high-sticking call, and Merrimack's Josh Myers creating havoc in front of the BU net, Mike Collins collected the puck on his off wing and flicked a shot through a maze of bodies that beat Maguire over his blocker at 4:32.
Maguire prevented the Warriors from doubling the lead moments later, stuffing Merrimack's Brian Christie on a clean breakaway. Just before the midway point, Marotta denied Megan with a sparkling stop of his own, reaching behind to grab Megan's backhand bid.
Marotta had another big stop at 15:51, sliding across his crease to deny Cason Hohmann in the low slot as BU had the extra attacker on a delayed penalty call. During the ensuing penalty, though, Hohmann got the equalizer. Walking in off the left half-wall, the sophomore from Texas snapped a shot that Mansfield blocked. But in the blink of an eye, Hohmann collected his own rebound and roofed a shot over Marotta's right shoulder to square the game, 2-2, at 16:12.
Again, Merrimack responded. Collecting the puck after a mixup between two BU defenders, Warrior John Gustafsson spun at the right faceoff dot and ripped a wrister that beat Maguire short side for a 3-2 margin at 18:40. It wasn't enough.
With eight seconds remaining in the middle stanza and the Terriers on their third power play of the period, BU freshman Sam Kurker jammed at a puck as Marotta tried to cover it, and the biscuit slipped through the netminder's legs to tie the match, 3-3.
"It's bizarre that they score so late in the second period, and we come right back and score again," said Parker. "That was big. If they could have gotten out of the period up, we would have been down a little bit. We lost the first period, and came back and won the second period, which was big when we got that goal."
The Terriers took their first lead at 5:11. Sam Rosen flicked a shot that Marotta blocked, but Rosen followed his initial shot, and shoveled the rebound over the fallen netminder to give BU a 4-3 lead.
Marotta kept the Warriors within 1 with a super blocker stop on Lane, who had a clean breakaway at the 10:10 mark. Lane had another spectacular bid to put the game out of reach at 12:44, when he chipped the puck past Ellis and then slashed across the crease, beating Marotta before his shot clanked off the left post and out.
BU captain Megan put the icing on Parker's final home win, diving at the puck on the right boards and sending it just inside the left post on the empty Merrimack net, where Gill tapped it in for the insurance marker at 19:55.
"I'd just like to start by saying what an honor it was to coach against Jack Parker. He's one of the reasons I wanted to come back to Hockey East, to coach against the likes of Coach Parker and Coach York and Coach [Dick] Umile," said Dennehy. "The game will take an absolute hit with his departure. Pretty big shoes to fill."
Parker departs Agganis with a record of 95-50-18 in the program's sparkling building on Commonwealth Avenue, and 896-471-116 overall. The Terriers now move on to the home of the Boston Bruins, where Parker has won 21 Beanpots and seven Hockey East tournaments. An eighth would ensure Parker's 25th trip to the NCAAs, the most of any coach, and a chance for the legendary coach to reach 900 wins.
"All good things must come to an end," said Parker with his trademark grin. "Oscar Wilde once said that some people cause joy wherever they go. Others whenever they go. So, some of my guys might be cheering when I finish up here. You never know."
Other Hockey East quarterfinals:
No. 2 Boston College 4, No. 7 Vermont 1
The Boston College Eagles suffered a setback before the puck even dropped on Saturday, as head coach Jerry York was sidelined after suffering a second detached retina in his right eye. However, the second-seed Eagles rallied, overwhelming the seventh-seed Vermont Catamounts by a 4-1 margin at Conte Forum to take the quarterfinal series, two games to none. BC scored the game's first goals, with the team's leading scorers Johnny Gaudreau, Steve Whitney and captain Pat Mullane all lighting the lamp to lead the Eagles. The win sends BC, the defending Hockey East and NCAA champs, on to the league semifinals, where they will face Boston University for the 262nd time.
No. 5 New Hampshire 4, No. 4 Providence 1
UMass Lowell will have to wait another day to see who their semifinal opponent will be next Friday, as New Hampshire forced a third and deciding game with a series-tying 4-1 victory over the Friars in Providence. Dick Umile's squad scored in each period, but didn't guarantee itself a game on Sunday until Jeff Silengo put UNH up 3-1 at the 17:33 mark of the third. UNH's Matt Willows put a bow on the win with an empty-netter at 18:23. Wildcats goalie Casey DeSmith (38 saves) got the best of his former USHL teammate, Providence goalie John Gillies (20 saves), to register the win.