NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Soft goals and shorthanded goals have plagued the University of Maine Black Bears all season. They have also had a penchant for squandering leads.
It cost them dearly on Friday night.
Ryan Flanigan’s goal from the left-wing boards with 7:32 remaining and Elliott Sheen’s shorthanded goal 2:06 later enabled the Merrimack College Warriors to take a 1-0 lead in their best of three Hockey East quarterfinal series by virtue of a 5-4 win.
Merrimack, which spotted Maine a 2-0 lead, improved to 23-8-4 while Maine had its seven-game unbeaten streak snapped and fell to 17-11-7. Game two is Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
“We’ve got to stop tightening up with the lead,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “There were a lot of momentum swings in the game. Merrimack did a great job bouncing back.”
It was Merrimack’s seventh straight home win and improved the Warriors’ home record to 13-2-1. The Bears are still looking for their first road win against a team that finished above them in the standings. They are now 0-6-1 against Boston College, New Hampshire, Boston University and Merrimack on the road.
Flanigan gave the Warriors the lead for good at 4-3 when his hopeful wrist shot from the left-wing boards somehow evaded Maine goalie Dan Sullivan and nestled in the short-side corner.
“No shot is a bad shot in this rink,” said Merrimack senior left wing and captain Chris Barton.
Merrimack goalie Joe Cannata preserved the lead with a great pad save off Spencer Abbott and then Sheen scored shorthanded on a breakaway as he put a wrister over Sullivan’s glove.
“I saw that they were undecided on who was going to take the faceoff,” explained Sheen who capitalized by chipping the puck around Abbott before breaking in alone.
“I saw the goalie was deep (in his crease),” said junior right wing Sheen who had his first two-goal night in a Merrimack uniform.
It was the ninth shorthanded goal allowed by the Bears this season.
Abbott got one back 54 seconds later on that same power play with a slap shot from the top of the right circle that beat the screened Cannata between his pads.
But Maine couldn’t equalize as Cannata made a game-saving stop off Brian Flynn, who was set up alone in the middle of the slot.
“Like I told Joe after the game, you only have to make one save. The game-saver,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy.
Dennehy also praised the play of the line of Carter Madsen between Flanigan and Sheen. They combined for three goals and two assists.
“They played a great game,” said Dennehy.
Sheen had made it 3-2 early in the third period with Merrimack’s third unanswered goal when he one-timed a Flanigan pass from behind the net into the short side corner.
Robby Dee answered by finishing off a beautiful passing sequence involving Gustav Nyquist and Abbott on the power play.
Maine built a 2-0 lead on Nyquist’s first-period power play goal and Dee’s second-period tally.
But, for the third straight game, Maine surrendered rapid-fire goals as Karl Stollery and Chris Barton scored 1:05 apart to tie it up.
Sheen gave Merrimack its first lead of the game early in the third period but Dee answered.
Maine had given up goals seven seconds and 18 seconds apart in last weekend’s 4-3 win and 4-4 overtime tie at UMass.
“We gave them way too many chances. We’ve got to protect our net better,” said Dee.
The Black Bears played exceptional hockey in the first period, limiting Merrimack to just one Grade-A (high-percentage) scoring chance while generating seven themselves.
Cannata made five Grade-A saves but Nyquist, who was foiled on a breakaway earlier in the period, finally supplied the Bears with a well-deserved goal with 40 seconds left in the period.
Flynn slid a pass to Tanner House in the slot and House’s shot deflected across to Nyquist to Cannata’s left and Nyquist one-timed a 10-footer between Cannata’s pads.
It was Nyquist’s 11th goal in his last 11 games.
Dee extended his goal-scoring streak to three games 7:02 into the middle period when Kyle Beattie’s shot from the right circle was kicked out by Cannata only to hit a Merrimack defensman’s skate and carry back toward the goalie. The puck slid past Cannata and Dee tapped it home.
Stollery scored 2:49 later off a three-on-two.
Stephane Da Costa fed Jesse Todd for a backhander from the left circle. Sullivan made the save but the rebound spilled across the crease and Stollery was able to beat Flynn to the puck and swat it into the empty net.
Merrimack tied it on the power play when Nyquist didn’t get much on a pass back to Mark Nemec and Nemec mishandled the puck.
Barton pounced on the puck, took a stride and fired a wrister over the blocker of Sullivan.
Flanigan had an assist to go with his goal.
Nyquist had two assists to go with his goal; Dee had an assist to accompany his two goals and Abbott had an assist to go with his goal.
Each team had 24 shots on goal with Cannata making nine Grade-A saves among his 20 and Sullivan being credited with three among his 19 saves.