BOSTON -- The wildly unpredictable nature of this year's Boston University Terriers has put a king-size dent in coach Jack Parker's antacid budget, but the defending national champs have always found a way to bounce back. The bad news is that they no longer have any margin for error. The next loss will be the Terriers' last. The good news is that they have another game to play after taking the rubber match 3-0 in the three-game quarterfinal series on Sunday against a never-say-die Merrimack squad at BU's Agganis Arena.
The clean sheet was BU's first of the season, and it couldn't have come at a better time. The win sends BU (18-16-3) into the Hockey East semifinals against Maine at Boston's TD Garden next Friday, the eighth straight trip to the league's final weekend for the Terriers. But BU coach Jack Parker noted it was the fifth time the past six years that his squad was forced to play a full three-game Hockey East quarterfinal.
"It's not good for my health," Parker deadpanned afterward. "When we drew this team, I thought it would be the toughest draw for us. They're real physical."
After a six-year absence from the Hockey East playoffs, the Merrimack Warriors (16-19-2) reintroduced themselves with a flourish, taking the Terriers to the limit before relenting. History wasn't on the Warriors side as Merrimack had never tagged back-to-back losses on BU in the 90-game series. But the program gained a considerable measure of respect, playing hard to the final whistle.
"I don't know that anybody believed in this team except this team," said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. "This program was in trouble a couple of years ago, and it took a special group of kids to bring it back to relevance, starting with the senior class."
The Warriors have been playing with fire against the vaunted BU power play, taking 21 penalties in the first two games, and 14 in their Game 2 victory. Sunday night, Merrimack took another 14, while BU was tagged for 16 infractions.
"We got looks," said Dennehy, praising the play of BU's Kieran Millan in goal. "We got plenty of chances. We just couldn't capitalize on them."
If the two teams were tentative, it didn't show in the first period as both came out of the gates hitting early and often. A string of BU turnovers led to a number of quality scoring chances for the Warriors, the best being a 3-on-1 break off an intercepted pass that Merrimack top scorer Stephane Da Coasta fired high over Millan's glove, clearing the crossbar. BU got on the board first, for the first time in the series, when captain Kevin Shattenkirk pinched in to collect a patient feed from Nick Bonino and fired a hard, low wrister that beat Merrimack's Joe Cannata inside the left post at 9:12.
The Terriers appeared to double their lead when, during an extended delayed penalty call and BU skating with six attackers, Colby Cohen gathered the rebound of a Nick Bonino shot and shoveled it past Cannata. However, after video review, officials determined that Merrimack had touched the puck before it reached Cohen, negating the goal. Undeterred, Bonino cashed in during the ensuing power play. With Merrimack's Fraser Allan in the box for boarding, Bonino calmly walked the puck into the low slot and flicked a forehand that Cannata stopped but couldn't control. Bonino collected the rebound and, as Merrimack's Adam Ross hit him, tapped a backhander over Cannata's left pad.
"That was a great individual effort," said Parker.
The Terriers kept attacking at the start of the second stanza, with several quality scoring bids that Cannata denied. For several stretches, BU's pedigree was on full displayas the Terriers controlled the puck almost at will through the first 12 minutes of the period. However, the Warriors answered with their trademark tenacity, clawing their way back into the game. John Jamieson narrowly missed on a stuff attempt from the left post, and defenseman Karl Stolley rang a wrister off the crossbar that Millan never saw.
As Cannata built a brick wall in front of the Merrimack net, the Warriors ratcheted up the pressure, and had one glorious opportunity during a power play with less than two minutes to go in the second stanza. With an open net in front of him, Merrimack's Joe Cucci swatted at a rolling puck that Millan, twisting like a contortionist, was able to smother underneath him before it crossed the goal line.
"Kieran Millan played great all weekend," said Parker. "It was great to see him get the shutout."
In the final 20 minutes, bodies in both jerseys kept colliding from end to end. Merrimack's Dennehy had characterized the series as a David vs. Goliath scenario, given the respective reputations of the two programs. But the game and the series more closely resembled an intrastate Goliath vs. Goliath brawl, which seemed fitting for the two most penalized teams in Hockey East this season. Both teams were fearless in blocking shots, Cannata and Millan quickly gobbled up any pucks that did get through (Millan being the busier, as the Warriors outshot BU 14-5 in the final stanza). All the while, the parade to the penalty box continued almost unabated (14 penalties would be called in the third, and 30 all totaled).
With three minutes left in the game, Merrimack's Cucci, the hero of Saturday's overtime victory, got sent off for holding, and BU's Chris Connolly nailed the Warriors coffin almost immediately afterward. The sophomore form Duluth, Minn., took a slick feed from Vinny Saponari and roofed a wrist shot over Cannata's right shoulder, sealing the win.
Still, Parker acknowledged that his team's inconsistent play was still a concern, and said he'd leave it to his captains and seniors to drive home the lesson that the Terriers are only one loss from cleaning out their lockers.
His captain agreed.
"I think tonight was a great showing of how we can play under pressure," said Shattenkirk. "It was a great example of everyone stepping up."
"We can't afford to lose," he said. "Everyone came to the rink [tonight] with the mindset that we had to win."
Parker admitted his Terriers may have dodged a bullet. "It was a real hard-fought series," he said. "We're fortunate to be moving on."
Expect Parker to bring along the Tums next Friday.
No. 8 Vermont 1, No. 1 New Hampshire 0, OT
Kevin Sneddon's Catamounts threw everything at UNH's Brian Foster on Sunday at the Whittemore Center, outshooting the Wildcats 41-22 through regulation. In overtime, the Wildcats (17-13-7) started to turn on the offensive jets, blistering 12 shots on Vermont's Rob Madore. But it was the Catamounts (17-13-7) that broke through, with senior Jay Anctil netting the game winner with 4:08 remaining in the first overtime period to complete Vermont's quarterfinal comeback and send the Catamounts to a semifinal date next Friday against Boston College. Foster ended the night with 50 saves, but couldn't prevent the league's No. 1 seed from being eliminated.
No. 4 Maine 3, No. 5 UMass Lowell 2, OT
The Black Bears (18-16-3) have one of Hockey East's best home ice advantages at the Alfond Arena on Maine's Orono campus. That loyal fan base may have been the difference Sunday night as Tim Whitehead's crew edged a stubborn UMass Lowell squad (19-16-4), 3-2, in overtime to win the quarterfinal series, 2-1. Maine's junior captain Tanner House got his second huge goal in as many nights, tallying the game winner five minutes into overtime. Maine will travel to Boston next Friday to take on Boston University in the nightcap (8 p.m. ET) of the Hockey East semifinals.