NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — It was evident by looking at his reddened eyes that University of Maine senior defenseman and assistant captain Jeff Dimmen had taken his team’s season-ending 6-2 loss to fourth-seeded Merrimack College to heart Saturday night.
His voice was much softer than usual as he fought back tears.
“They played really well,” said Dimmen, whose fifth-seeded Bears had squandered a 2-0 lead and dropped a 5-4 decision Friday night in the opener of their best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series. “They buried their chances when they had them and (goalie Joe Cannata) played really well.”
So a season that started with so much promise ended in a fizzle.
The Black Bears, who were picked to finish second in Hockey East in the coaches’ preseason poll and went 6-1-3 in their first 10 games, including a sweep of national power North Dakota, wound up 17-12-7 and will miss the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year after making nine consecutive appearances.
Maine went 0-7-1 on the road against teams that finished higher in the standings and was outscored 39-17.
“It’s a tough loss, obviously, but credit goes to Merrimack. They’ve had a tremendous season and played a great couple of games here to advance,” said Whitehead.
“The key thing for us this year was we weren’t able to get two more points to grab home ice. That really cost us. It could have been a much different series,” said Whitehead who praised his five seniors (Dimmen, Tanner House, Mike Banwell, Robby Dee and Josh Van Dyk) as well as his team.
“They’re a fabulous group of young men. I’m very, very proud of all of them. They never quit,” said Whitehead.
Junior center Carter Madsen had his first career hat trick in the convincing triumph before a soldout and energetic crowd at Lawler Arena as Merrimack won its eighth straight home game and improved to 24-8-4. Merrimack will advance to the TD Bank Garden in Boston for the semifinals for just the second time in program history. The only previous time was in 1998.
The Warriors, who outshot Maine 37-31, built a 3-0 lead on Jeff Velleca’s first-period goal and second-period goals 5:11 apart by Madsen and Mike Collins. Collins’ goal came on the power play.
Brian Flynn’s 20th goal of the season, coming at the 10:52 mark, gave Maine some life but Ryan Flanigan answered by scoring on a breakaway 2:27 later after coming directly out of the penalty box.
Madsen sandwiched a pair of third-period goals around one by Dimmen.
The hard-working junior line of Madsen between Flanigan and Elliott Sheen, which entered the series with 20 goals and 30 assists between them, combined for seven goals and seven assists in the series, including four goals and five assists on Saturday night.
They also had the responsibility of shutting down Maine’s top line of House between Brian Flynn and Gustav Nyquist. The trio had only a combined two goals and six assists on the weekend.
“That line was a huge spark for them,” said House, Maine’s captain. “They contributed offensively as well as playing good defense. Any time a defensive line can chip in, that’s huge. They may have been the difference in the series. They created a lot of offense by playing good defense. They have good speed and they work hard.”
“They were tremendous. They were their best line both nights,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead.
“We stuck to the game plan,” explained left wing Flanigan, who had three assists to go with his goal on Saturday night. “We worked the puck down low (in the offensive zone), put the puck in good places and took the body when we could.”
Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said the line was very tenacious.
“They epitomize the type of hockey we want to play. We wanted to make that (House) line play defense and we wanted them to come 200 feet (to score),” he said.
Junior right wing Velleca, who broke Maine freshman goalie Dan Sullivan’s school record-setting shutout streak at 202:49 during a 7-1 loss to Maine on Feb. 26, scored the only goal in the first period off a long pass up the middle from Flanigan.
“I had a guy just off my shoulder so I tried to get my shot off quick and put it to that (blocker) side,” said Velleca.
The Warriors carried the play throughout the game and were credited with 30 blocked shots while also winning 45 of 72 faceoffs.
Madsen opened the second-period scoring by capitalizing on a sustained forecheck.
Flanigan fed the puck to Madsen and he skated out of the left corner and beat Sullivan with a wrister through the pads.
Collins extended the lead on the power play by accepting a Stephane Da Costa pass, splitting Maine’s defense and breaking in alone on Sullivan before wristing the puck blocker-side.
Flynn scored by deflecting Will O’Neill’s wrist shot from the point under the crossbar.
But Maine’s momentum was short-lived when Velleca sent Flanigan in alone with a pinpoint pass and he lifted the puck over Sullivan’s glove.
Whitehead argued that Flanigan had left the penalty box early but to no avail.
Kyle Beattie tipped Matt Mangene’s pass off the post on a delayed penalty call against Merrimack and, moments later, the Bears failed to convert on a five-on-three that spanned 1:14.
Madsen scored a shorthanded goal 1:36 into the third period with a 20-foot backhander off a Sheen pass to sew up the win. That sent Sullivan to the bench in favor of Shawn Sirman.
Dimmen scored with a one-timer off a House pass before Madsen jammed home a rebound.