ORONO — Merrimack College hadn’t won a men’s hockey game at the University of Maine’s Alfond Arena since Nov. 14, 1997.
But the Warriors snapped that 23-game drought (0-21-2) with a 2-1 victory Friday night.
Merrimack College coach Mark Dennehy felt special teams would be decisive and he proved to be prophetic as both of his team’s goals came on special teams and his penalty-killers held Maine scoreless on nine attempts including a pair of five-on-threes.
The Warriors built a 2-0 lead in the second period on Jeff Velleca’s early power-play goal and Jesse Todd’s late shorthanded goal.
The Warriors survived Klas Leidermark’s third-period shorthanded goal to win the mutual season opener. It was also their Hockey East opener.
Maine will host Northeastern on Sunday at 1 p.m.
In between the goals, the Black Bears had a five-on-three that spanned 1:20, but the Warrior trio of Ryan Flanigan, Brendan Ellis and Karl Stollery effectively took away Maine’s backdoor pass, in which one player passes across the low slot for a tap-in at the far post, and prevented Maine from generating any glittering opportunities.
Maine had scored twice on a five-on-three in a 7-3 exhibition win over New Brunswick last Sunday and went 3-for-10 on the power play.
“We blocked a lot of shots and Joe (goalie Joe Cannata) was unbelievable again,” said senior right winger Velleca.
Merrimack blocked 19 shots on the evening.
“That’s who we are,” said Dennehy. “If you aren’t willing to block shots, you aren’t going to play.”
Cannata finished with 22 saves but just nine of them were of the Grade-A (high-percentage) variety.
“Merrimack did a good job blocking shots and when you consider the amount of possession we had on the power play, we didn’t get as many shots as we should have. We should have finished with more than 23 shots,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “We waited a little too long to shoot so they were able to get their sticks on our shots or the goalie was able to get set.
“We also missed the net a lot and stickhandled too much,” said Whitehead, whose Bears missed the net 15 times.
“We weren’t clicking on the power play tonight,” said Maine senior center and co-captain Brian Flynn. “They did a good job on the penalty kill. We couldn’t find many (shooting or passing) lanes and we weren’t getting to the net to screen the goalie.”
Maine generated just six shots on goal on its nine power plays.
Velleca opened the scoring at the 4:32 mark, just three seconds after Mark Nemec was assessed a holding penalty.
Flanigan cleanly won a faceoff draw back to Ellis at the left point and Ellis’ low wrister was tipped by Velleca and squeezed between the pads of Maine goalie Martin Ouellette.
“Ellis kept his shot low and I was able to get my stick on it,” said Velleca.
“I closed my pads as quickly as I could (but it snuck through),” said Ouellette.
Midway through the period, Leidermark was sent in alone down the left wing by Kyle Beattie, but Leidermark fired wide of the short side.
Leidermark chased down the puck and fed freshman Connor Leen, but Cannata stopped his near-post bid.
Ouellete came up with a gem later in the period when John Heffernan was set up by Velleca, who made a cross-ice pass to spring him down the left wing.
Heffernan took a stride and fired a 20-foot wrister that Ouellette swatted away with his glove.
Todd extended the lead on a two-on-none.
Maine’s Flynn lost the puck in his skates at the right point and, while trying to find it, he fell down.
Todd poked it free and skated down the left wing with Flanigan on the other wing.
Todd looked up and, using Flanigan as a decoy, snapped a wrister past Ouellette’s glove side.
“It went over my pad and under my glove. I’d like to have that one back,” said Ouellette.
“I didn’t want to do anything too fancy and mess it up,” said Todd. “I saw an opening on the glove side (and shot it).”
“I hung (Ouellette) out to dry. I tripped myself up,” said a somber Flynn.
Flynn added that he felt Ouellette played a great game.
The Bears failed to score on a 15-second five-on-three in the third period, but shortly afterward, Leidermark brought the Alfond Arena crowd to its feet. He swooped in on a loose puck at center ice, skated down the right wing and beat Cannata with a wrister into the short-side corner.
Cannata made a key save seconds later when he robbed Adam Shemansky, who was stationed to the goalie’s right at the edge of the crease. Shemansky tried to sweep home a Nemec rebound.
Ouellete wound up with 25 saves, including six Grade-A’s.
“It wasn’t a Mona Lisa,” said Dennehy, who guided the Warriors to a 25-10-4 record and a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998 a year ago. “Both teams played hard. From the top of the circles down in each zone, I thought we played pretty well.”