NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — The Merrimack College Warriors used the University of Maine Black Bears to showcase their evolution Saturday afternoon.
And they left the Black Bears pondering an uncertain future.
The Warriors steamrolled the Black Bears 7-1 behind three first-period goals 2:44 apart, a game-changing shorthanded goal by Chris Barton with 1:23 left in the second period and three third-period goals 3:22 apart.
It was Maine's worst loss since a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of UMass Lowell on March 7, 2009.
Merrimack improved to 10-4-4 overall, 6-4-3 in Hockey East, while Maine fell to 9-6-4 and 6-4-2, respectively. Merrimack leapfrogged Maine into fourth place in the league by one point although Maine has played one fewer game.
Seventeenth-ranked Merrimack is off to its best start in its 22 years in Division I after coming up from Division II.
Ninth-ranked Maine is just 2-4-1 in its last seven league games entering home games against Providence and Boston College next Friday and Sunday evenings, respectively.
"Against a strong team in their own rink, you've got to pay the price and play harder than that," said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. "Their top players outplayed our top players. Our so-called first line (Robby Dee between Gustav Nyquist and Brian Flynn) was an embarrassment."
The trio was a combined minus-9 in plus-minus which gives a player a plus-one if he is on the ice for an even-strength or shorthanded goal and a minus-one if the opponent scores one.
"We didn't come to play today," said Dee, who staked Maine to a 1-0 lead by finishing off a pretty tic-tac-toe passing play involving Nyquist and Spencer Abbott on a five-on-three just 4:11 into the game.
Joe Cucci, Shawn Bates and Stephane Da Costa answered for Merrimack and, after Barton's second-period goal, Brandon Brodhag, Da Costa and Todd put the finishing touches on the win with third-period goals.
"Take nothing away from them. They took it to us pretty good in all areas of the ice. After that first goal, we stopped playing," said Dee.
"We got outworked again. They came out a little hungrier than we did and it definitely swung the tide," said Maine senior defenseman and assistant captain Jeff Dimmen, who was playing his first game since suffering an ankle injury on Nov. 19.
Dimmen was victimized on Cucci's tying power-play goal when he extended his stick to try to prevent Cucci from passing the puck across the slot to an open teammate at the far post only to have the puck deflect off his stick into the short-side corner.
Freshman left wing Bates scored what proved to be the game-winner 42 seconds later when the puck squirted out of the corner into the high slot and Bates skated on to it and blasted a one-timer that glanced off Ouellette into the net.
Hockey East Rookie of the Year Da Costa made it 3-1 only 2:02 later with a similar goal on a slapper from the high slot. He beat Ouellette cleanly to the near post. It came in a four-on-four situation.
"I saw the short side open," said Da Costa, who was pleased with the win.
"Our goal was to come out and play a complete 60-minute game and we did it," said the French Olympian.
The Warriors outshot Maine 13-5 in the first period and intimidated the passive and tentative Bears with their physical play, winning the vast majority of loose pucks.
"They did a good job finishing their checks. It's a tough style to play against. It wears on you," said Dimmen.
"That's something we pride ourselves on. We're a hardworking team and you've got to be able to hit guys to be hardworking," said junior goalie Joe Cannata, who made 29 saves before leaving with 4:05 remaining due to a leg cramp.
The former U.S. Under-18 goaltender was at his best in the second period when the Bears played with much more conviction and grit and carried the play.
He finished with 14 saves of which seven were of the Grade-A (high-percentage) variety.
"I did my best to keep the guys (ahead)," said Cannata.
Against the run of play, Barton scored shorthanded off the rebound of an Elliott Sheen shot on a two-on-one following a Maine turnover.
Sheen carried the puck and got a shot from the inside of the left faceoff circle that was saved by Dan Sullivan, who had replaced Ouellette at the outset of the second period. But the rebound rolled across the goalmouth and Barton simply tapped it home for his fifth career goal in 10 games against Maine.
"That was a back-breaker," said Dimmen. "We had played a really good second period and had some momentum but that took the wind out of our sails."
Maine outshot Merrimack 33-32.