It was déjà vu. UNH and Merrimack for the second consecutive year tangled in a best-of-three series for the right to advance to the quarterfinal round of the Hockey East tournament.
Although this time around, UNH decided to write a different ending to the familiar tale.
The UNH men’s hockey team won 5-2 against the Merrimack College Warriors on Sunday night to wrap up the three-game series that occurred over the weekend. Tyler Kelleher’s 23rd goal of the season and Danny Tirone’s 44 saves on Sunday night provided the boost that UNH needed to move on.
Excellence in goaltending became a central theme in the teams’ winning efforts. UNH saw that from Warrior goaltender Collin Delia and his 25 saves on Friday helping to secure his third career shutout. On Saturday the script was flipped with UNH winning 4-0 to force a decisive Game 3 led by Danny Tirones 44 saves, his most ever while recording a shutuout. Tirone’s second consecutive 40-plus save effort propelled UNH to its opening-round upset.
After falling behind 1-0 in the series as a result of a 4-0 loss in game one to the Warriors, the ‘Cats owned the final two games, winning by scores of 4-0 in game two and 5-2 in game three. UNH will advance to play the No. 1 UMass Lowell River Hawks in the Hockey East quarterfinal round this weekend.
Head coach Dick Umile credits much his team’s success down the stretch to captain Matias Cleland’s leadership presence prior to the start of the third game.
“A guy like Cleland. He is our leader and our warrior. He is committed to it and got his teammates ready to go to battle where they did not want to see the season end. It has been a frustrating season, but now in the new season we just won two out of three,” Umile said.
The ‘Cats took over game three early as junior Michael McNicholas was able to cycle to the far-side faceoff circle receive a pass from Tyler Kelleher and wrist one past Delia to make it 1-0.
“It is great playing with Tyler, hopefully he gets the Hobey this year he has a great hockey sense,” McNicholas said. “It was tough Friday night getting that loss and knew it was do or die and we came out hard Saturday night and did the same tonight. It shows our character.”
UNH continued its stride when at 6:01 Frankie Cefalu scored his first collegiate goal to make it 2-0. Jamie Hill was credited with only his second assist of the year coming off a shot from the near side circle that was played by Anthony Wyse. Cefalu was able to bury the redirected rebound and make it 2-0.
The Wildcats would never relinquish their lead for the rest of the game. Despite threats from both Hampus Gustafsson and Derek Petti, UNH hold on and secured the 5-2 victory which included an empty-net goal from Jason Salvaggio.
UNH’s strong finish to the series was met with a troubling start. Merrimack’s 4-0 shutout in game one forced UNH to answer with its season on the line. Freshman forward Patrick Grasso answered the bell and continued his scoring ways against Merrimack with two goals to cap off the series. An opening goal in both games two and three aided UNH in the series win.
The Wildcats now move on to the quarterfinals as they challenge the No. 1 seeded River Hawks. In the regular season, the Wildcats lost both contests, including a 1-0 shutout at the Whittmore Center and an 8-2 loss in Lowell.
“They are a really good team, last time out they kicked our butt, but earlier in the year we played them tough and we will have to duplicate that moving forward,” Umile said.
The Wildcats will open up the best-of-three series at the Tsongas Center down in Lowell, Massachusetts Fri. March 10th.