ORONO — The Merrimack College Warriors stayed alive Saturday night and forced a third and decisive game in their best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series against the University of Maine.
Late second-period goals 20 seconds apart by Jeff Velleca and Rhett Bly broke open a close game and gave the Warriors a well-deserved 5-2 victory at Alfond Arena.
The teams will decide the series Sunday night at 7.
The Warriors amped up their physical play following Friday’s 2-1 loss and won the majority of the puck battles while limiting Maine’s time and space with the puck.
The Warriors also got under the skin of the Black Bears which led to a penalty-filled contest.
The two teams combined for 184 penalty minutes. Merrimack had 26 penalties for 98 minutes and Maine was assessed 86 penalty minutes on 24 infractions.
The teams set a Hockey East Tournament record for penalties and penalty minutes.
Matt Mangene’s shorthanded goal staked Maine to a 1-0 lead but Bly answered 1:48 later and Josh Myers gave Merrimack the lead for good at the 13:33 mark with a power play goal..
Velleca extended the lead with 2:05 remaining in the second period and Bly added his second to give the Warriors a comfortable cushion.
Adam Shemansky scored a five-on-three power play goal with 11:57 remaining in the third period but Maine was unable to convert the ensuing five-on-four power play that spanned 1:39 and it also failed to convert on two full two-minute power plays later in the period.
Dan Kolomatis added an empty-net goal.
Maine’s power play, which was second best in the country entering the game, went 1-for-8 and is now slumping to the tune of a 1-for-13 showing in the last three games.
Merrimack improved to 18-11-7 while Maine is now 21-12-3..
Velleca’s crucial goal to make it 3-1 came off a rebound of a point shot.
He was able to muscle his way across the top of the crease and tuck it between Dan Sullivan’s left skate and the post.
Kyle Bigos and Simon Demers had assists.
Bly then provided the Warriors with a three-goal cushion as he scored with a backhander through a crowded goalmouth from the low slot., Elliott Sheen and Kolomatis had assists.
Shemansky gave the Bears some life with 11:57 remaining as he was positioned at the edge of the crease and jammed .a Joey Diamond rebound past Cannata.
But the Bears couldn’t get any closer as the Warriors did a nice job on the penalty kill.
Mangene opened the scoring with a rush down the left wing and a low wrist shot from the left circle past Cannata..
But Bly answered by collecting a Jordan Heywood rebound, pulling the puck back into a better shooting position and flipping it into the exposed net.
Myers scored off a face-off to the left of Sullivan and his snap shot from a difficult angle beat Sullivan.
Merrimack outshot Maine 37-30.
“They played a good, solid road game,” said Maine senior center and co-captain Brian Flynn.
Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said his team “got the puck low, grinded it out and made (Maine) play defense. We got pucks to the net and competed for the whole 60 minutes.”