ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine men’s hockey team will be returning to the TD Garden for the Hockey East semifinals.
The Black Bears turned in a superb defensive performance, senior left wing Spencer Abbott had a goal and an assist, and Dan Sullivan made 20 saves as Maine beat Merrimack College 2-1 at Alfond Arena in their third and deciding game of the series.
Fourth seed Maine improved to 22-12-3 and will take on third seed Boston University, 23-13-1, in Friday’s 8 p.m. semifinal. Top seed Boston College, 27-10-1, and seventh seed Providence College, 14-19-4, will meet in the 5 p.m. opener.
Merrimack finished at 18-12-7.
Maine outshot Merrimack 32-21 and had 20 Grade-A scoring attempts to Merrimack’s 9.
Sullivan finished with seven Grade-A saves among his 20 and Joe Cannata turned in another impressive performance with 11 Grade-A stops among his 30.
The Bears took a 1-0 lead on Abbott’s first-period five-on-three power-play goal and Brice O’Connor expanded the lead 3:48 into the second period.
Ryan Flanigan answered for Merrimack 5:28 later.
But Maine protected the lead with impressive efficiency and Sullivan came up with a few key saves.
“We came out flying,” said Sullivan. “We really wanted it. We were willing to pay the price. The guys made my job easy.”
Maine carried the play in the first period as the Bears took a page out of Merrimack’s book by finishing their checks and winning the majority of the battles for loose pucks.
The Bears also created an up-tempo flow and prevented the Warriors from establishing a sustained forecheck which paved the way for Merrimack’s 5-2 win on Saturday night.
“We executed the game plan very well,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “Our compete level was better, we were disciplined and we did a better job limiting their time and space with the puck.
“(Merrimack) scored a couple rebound goals on Saturday but we did a better job in front of the net and we pressured their shooters more,” added Whitehead. “I was so impressed with Merrimack. They kept pushing. And the Vancouver (Canucks) have a special goalie coming to them in Joe Cannata.”
“Our backs were against the wall. We want to make the NCAA Tournament,” said Abbott. “Our defensemen played very well and our forwards were coming back so we had three layers of defense. And (Sullivan) has been our backbone for a while. It all starts with Sully.”
Abbott scored his 20th goal of the season at the 11:38 mark of the first period with a blistering one-timer to the far corner from the top of the right circle off an Adam Shemansky pass.
“(Shemansky) tried to make a cross-crease pass but it deflected back to him,” said Abbott. “I was cocked (in shooting position) and he gave me the pass and I put it low blocker side.”
Despite Maine’s dominance, Cannata was sharp and made six Grade-A saves to keep his team within striking distance.
Cannata caught a break late in the period when Stu Higgins was set up in the right circle for a one-timer by Jon Swavely only to see his blast ring off the crossbar.
Maine had 10 Grade-A scoring chances in the first period to Merrimack’s one.
O’Connor made it 2-0 at the 3:48 mark of the middle period.
Abbott carried the puck down the right wing and found a wide-open Nick Pryor cruising down the middle of the slot.
Pryor’s wrister was saved by Cannata but the rebound spilled to his right and O’Connor swept it home.
“I think everyone of us touched the puck on that one,” said Abbott.
Brian Flynn pushed the puck ahead to Joey Diamond but Diamond was tied up.
“I was skating up the ice and Joey gave it to me,” said O’Connor. “I sent it up to Spencer.”
O’Connor drove to the net and Abbott slipped the puck to the onrushing Pryor, who was trailing the play and had no one covering him.
Abbott said he heard Pryor yell for the puck.
Pryor’s shot was saved by Cannata but the rebound spilled over to O’Connor at the crease.
“I just stopped at the net and banked it in,” said O’Connor, who scored the game-winner in the 1-0 win over New Hampshire last weekend that gave Maine home for the quarterfinal round.
“It’s nice to chip in but it’s all about the team,” said O’Connor.
Flanigan answered at the 9:16 mark.
Jesse Todd carried the puck down the right wing and took a wrist shot that deflected across the low slot where Flanigan deposited it into the exposed net.
Sullivan prevented Merrimack from tying it when he got his left skate on Mike Collins’ wraparound attempt later in the middle period when it appeared there was plenty of net available.
“I thought he was going to shoot it at the right post but he went around the net quickly,” said Sullivan. “I was able to get my toe or the bottom of my pad on it.”
With 1:40 left in the period, a Matt Mangene rush and centering pass was deflected into the net off the skate of Mark Anthoine. It was called a goal initially but a video review negated the goal because it had gone in off Anthoine’s skate.
Merrimack took chances to try to get the equalizer in the third period and it led to several odd-man rushes for Maine but the Bears failed to capitalize as Cannata came up with a few important saves and Maine misfired on a few passes.
“We played well at times but obviously not well enough,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. “We did a pretty job containing their power play. The guys played real hard. I’m very proud of them. Maine forechecked well early. We had to kill a lot of penalties and had to expend a lot of energy in doing so. From the middle of the second period on, we played real well.”
Maine went 1-for-6 on the power play while Merrimack had just one and failed to capitalize.
The teams set a Hockey East Tournament record with 184 penalty minutes on Saturday but combined for just 30 on Sunday.
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 victory Saturday.
The Warriors also got under the skin of the Black Bears which led to a penalty-filled contest.
Merrimack had 26 penalties for 98 minutes and Maine was assessed 86 penalty minutes on 24 infractions.