Minutemen split with Merrimack, clinch Hockey East playoff spot

By Scott Cournoyer

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Em Bhoo/Collegian

With playoffs implications coming down to the wire, the Massachusetts hockey team prevailed.

UMass (13-16-5, 9-14-4 Hockey East) secured the eighth and final playoff seed in the HEA tournament after splitting a home-and-home series Friday and Saturday night against No. 12 Merrimack.

The Minutemen will square off against No. 1 Boston College this weekend in a best-of-three series, beginning Friday in Chestnut Hill at 7 p.m.

“It was a great effort for us, and a step in the right direction,” said UMass coach Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon in an interview with UMassAthletics.com following Friday night’s 5-1 victory at the Mullins Center on Senior Night.

Following Friday’s playoff-clinching victory, it looked like the Minutemen were going to sweep the Warriors on back-to-back nights as they held a 2-1 lead after two periods on Saturday night.

Then, the third period came.

Merrimack used four goals in the final frame to edge UMass, 5-3, at Lawler Arena.

With the Minutemen leading 2-1 in the third frame, Josh Myers netted a power play goal for the Warriors to tie the game at 2-2, snapping the Minutemen’s streak of 17 straight penalty kills.

Merrimack grabbed a 3-2 lead with just over five minutes remaining in the game when Shawn Bates rifled home a netter for his second tally in as many nights.

The Warriors proceeded to score two more times, clinching the fifth seed in the tournament in the process.

“[Tonight’s result] starts with not closing it out,” said Cahoon following Saturday night’s loss. “We had plenty of opportunities to extend the lead and give ourselves a little cushion … that never happened.”

Contributions for UMass came from seniors Danny Hobbs and T.J. Syner. Syner scored his 13th goal of the season on the team’s second shorthanded opportunity of the season, extending his point streak to four games in the process, while Hobbs scored his 12th of the season late in the third.

Redshirt freshman Steven Guzzo also contributed on the offensive end, scoring his ninth goal with 30 seconds left in the second period.

Freshman Steve Mastalerz stopped 20 shots in net for the Minutemen, as the Minutemen outshot Merrimack, 29-25.

Shining on Senior Night

The Minutemen used four goals in the third period to down the Warriors (16-10-7, 12-9-2 HEA), 5-1, on Friday night at the Mullins Center. Hobbs and Syner contributed to the offensive effort as they said goodbye to the place they’ve called home for four years.

All the seniors got time on the ice Friday night before calling it a career while playing at the Mullins Center, including goaltender Kevin Moore,

Moore, a leader for the younger players throughout his time at UMass, got to play the final 1:35 in net in his second career appearance.

“He’s endured the struggle of coming to practice every day, taking a leadership role and encouraging players, [and] using his experience to help young goaltenders,” said Cahoon of Moore’s intangible contributions to the program over the last four years. “We are privileged to have him in our program and it was nice to see him get recognition for his efforts.”

The first two periods of the game for the Minutemen were filled with key defensive efforts, as they held Merrimack to just 16 total shots in the first two frames, including just three in the first period.

In the closing seconds of the first, Hobbs gave UMass the advantage when he redirected a shot from Joel Hanley into the back of the net. Branden Gracel also tallied an assist on the play.

The Warriors nearly leveled the score at 1-1 just 22 seconds into the second period, but after further review, the goal was negated, keeping the score at 1-0.

Just over a minute into the third frame, Merrimack found the netter to even the score at 1-1 when Shawn Bates nailed home a shot from inside the left faceoff circle.

The floodgates opened up shortly following the Warriors’ equalizer. Syner notched the eventual game-winner at 5:48, and then found Darren Rowe in the slot, who pushed the lead to 3-1 at 14:28.

Then, with about five minutes left in regulation, Merrimack pulled its goalie in a comeback effort, but it backfired, as Gracel and Kevin Czepiel both tallied empty-net goals in the final minutes to seal the victory.

Freshman Kevin Boyle concluded his season with an 8-6-4 record following Friday’s win. Boyle stopped 25 shots, while Merrimack’s Joe Cannata made 19 saves.

Scott Cournoyer can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Cournoyer.