Huskies Use Fast Start to Get By Merrimack
In the first 60 minutes of the season, Northeastern showed that they are capable of exceeding expectations this year. That same 60 minutes also had proved to justify many of the question marks that caused these expectations to be so low. But the Huskies left the rink with a 4-2 victory, 2 points, and a solid base on which to build this season; a result I’m sure they will take.
The Huskies came out firing on all cylinders and it took just 2 shifts for them to take the lead. It came on the first shot of the game, just 53 seconds into the contest. In a suprise move, Merrimack had given Rasmus Tirronen his first collegiate start. Junior Sam Marrota had stopped 33 shots against Union and was named Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week, but Coach Mark Dennehy stayed true to his pledge of a goalie rotation early on.
To be honest, it didn’t matter who was in net on this one. Tirronen had no chance. His defense had left him out to dry and Garrett Vermeersch had taken full advantage. Vinny Saponari won the puck in the corner and worked it to freshman Colton Saucerman at the point. Saucerman took his time before firing a shot that Vermeersch, left wide open in the slot, was able to tip into the top corner. And just like that the Huskies were up.
They would increase their lead minutes later when Joe Manno was allowed to walk in on Tirronen uncontested. Kevin Roy, who was already making his presence felt, hit Manno with a great pass as the Huskies broke into the zone and Manno did his part with a slick deke before backhanding it into the top corner.
The Huskies weren’t done yet. A tripping call on Justin Hussar gave NU a power play chance. And once again, Merrimack’s defense provided Northeastern with a great opportunity. A weak clear attempt was kept in the zone by Adam Reid. Saponari would pick up the puck and see the gift that Merrimack had given him: Kevin Roy left all alone in the low circle. The freshman buried the slapshot into the back of the net before Tirronen could get anywhere near it. It was the second assist for Saponari, who was the best player on the ice for much of the game. It was the second point and first goal of Kevin Roy’s career.
Merrimack was forced to call a timeout and try to regroup as they found themselves down 3 goals just 9 minutes into the game. The timeout seemed to wake the Warriors up a bit as they edged themselves back into the game. But it was Tirronen who was able to keep the Warriors afloat as the Huskies tallied 16 first period shots.
As the second period began, it was clear that Merrimack had picked up their play. It was a penalty filled period that included a minute stretch of 3 on 3 play. Just 5 minutes into the 2nd period, the Warriors would pull themselves back into the game. Surprisingly, it was the forwards, and not the inexperienced defense, that was responsible for the Northeastern breakdown. The Warriors broke in on an odd man rush. The first pass went to John Heffernan, who was given no space. But Heffernan was smart to find the trailing Quinn Gould, who was left uncovered thanks to a lackadaisical back check from Huskies during a poorly timed line change. Gould, who was impressive through the game, pushed the puck by a sliding Rawlings to get the Warriors on the board.
The goal gave Merrimack life and they effectively slowed the game down to suit their grinding style. The Huskies had a noticeable speed advantage, but they were unable to utilize it throughout the second as they dealt with multiple shorthanded situations and Merrimack’s physicality.
The Warriors power play was effective at creating chances, but those chances were consistently wasted by an inability to hit the net. But like they say, 5th time is the charm. It was a frustrating goal to give up for the Huskies. Justin Mansfield had a poor angle and very little room to work, but he was able to sneak it in when Rawlings failed to hold his post. It was a good shot by Mansfield, one the Warriors best forwards on the night, but the blame would have to be placed on Rawlings. It was the kind of goal that plagued Rawlings last year. The defense was effective in keeping Mansfield from a good shooting spot and had Rawlings been in proper position, Mansfield would have had no net to shoot at. It was a momentary mental lapse by Rawlings that put a dark cloud over an otherwise solid performance from him.
So the Huskies entered the 3rd with a 1 goal lead, but the momentum had shifted. It was now the Huskies who were on the back foot, playing tentatively. Frustration began to mount for NU, which led to more chances for Merrimack. Garrett Vermeersch took a foolish penalty behind the play after he slashed the stick out of a Merrimack player’s hand. But yet again, the Warriors could not get their shots on net and the Huskies were able to maintain the lead after killing the penalty.
Northeastern would get a chance to seal the win after a Rhett Bly interference call gave them a power play. Late game power plays are definitely not Northeastern’s forte. You may remember last year against Merrimack when the Huskies spent the final 5 minutes of regulation on the power play, yet were unable to score the winning goal. They would then give up a shorthanded goal on a separate power play to lose the game in overtime. On this night, they would work the power play well, but yet again Tirronen would keep the Warriors in the game with some big saves.
With 3 minutes left, Cody Ferriero was called for charging on what could be considered a “questionable call” especially given the situation of the game. But either way, it was Merrimack’s final chance at a tie. For the first time since the 3 goal outburst at the start, there was reason to believe in this new Huskies team. Chris Rawlings had recovered nicely after the goal and made a big save when it mattered most. Braden Pimm worked tirelessly to see the game out on the penalty kill unit. But ultimately, it was senior Robbie Vrolyk who would deliver the knockout punch for Northeastern. Vrolyk, finally healthy for what seems like the first time in forever, was all over the ice throughout the game. After a strong play by Adam Reid to free the puck, Vrolyk picked it up in the middle of his defensive zone. He confidently took the puck out wide, before calmly dumping it into the recently vacated Merrimack net, sealing the win for the Huskies.
It’s hard to say the win is anything but a positive for Northeastern. It seemed like a script that Northeastern has played out many times in years past. Only this time they changed the ending. Instead of blowing an early lead, the Huskies hung tough and emerged victorious. Granted, the late (and often unnecessary) penalties are alarming and need to be cut out. But it was encouraging to see a Huskies team overcome mistakes and hold on for a win on a night where they were the better team for much of the game.
What is even more encouraging is the impact of the freshman. In addition to his 2 points, Kevin Roy was 7-2 on faceoffs. Cam Darcy, while not on the scoresheet, was aggressive and active on both ends of the ice. Colton Saucerman seems like the perfect fit for the top power play unit. Even Dax Lauwers and Ryan Belonger saw time on the speciality units. These performances mixed in with the consistency of guys like Braden Pimm and Vinny Saponari should mean good things for NU this season.
Clearly there are things to work on. And with the defending national champions, BC, coming to Matthews on Saturday, those things will need to be ironed out quickly. But this win is a good start and should inspire some optimism that this team is at least headed in the right direction.