Boston, Mass. -- Often times, playoff overtime heroes are the most unlikely of players. That was the case Friday night as senior Kyle Singleton scored his first goal in over 26 months to lift Merrimack past Northeastern in the first game of the best-of-three Hockey East first round series at Matthews Arena.
"It was a gutsy performance by our guys. Scoring first helps. We were never out of it mentally no matter what happened," explained Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. "We were upbeat on the bench and believed we were going to make it happen."
Fittingly, Singleton, a penalty-kill specialist, scored his goal while the Warriors were killing Northeastern's eighth power play of the night. After blocking a shot defenseman Justin Mansfield got the puck up to Singleton who raced up ice on a two-on-one. He waited for a Northeastern defender to commit before rifling a wrist shot into the top right hand corner of the net.
"I was thinking pass to [Clayton Jardine], but [Benning] went down on one knee. I pump faked a little bit. I was just trying to go short side," explained Singleton, whose last goal came Jan. 5, 2013 at Vermont.
It felt good. I'm not looked to score a lot of goals, but obviously it's fun. I was just saving them for this series," Singleton said, eliciting some laughs from the media.
Merrimack had to kill 8:13 of penalty minutes in the first 9:12 of the game. That included a five-on-three during the end of a five-minute major and game misconduct assessed to Merrimack's second leading scorer Hampus Gustafsson.
"Having to kill eight penalty minutes in the first period put us a little behind the eight ball. Our PK has been really good all year, led by our goaltender [Rasmus Tirronen] and this guy," said Dennehy, referring to Singleton.
"Our penalty kill wouldn't be where it is if we didn't have guys with as much courage as [Kyle] and his teammates blocking shots. That's a good power play. To keep them 1-for-8 is pretty special," added Dennehy.
Singleton credited assistant coach Curtis Carr with alerting the penalty killers to some of Northeastern's tendencies in a pre-series video session.
"We had a good pre-scout meeting before the game. Coach Carr did a really good job. He told us what they liked to do. It really helped. We knew right away what they were trying to do with Roy on the left side. It really helped out mentally. We knew where to be," said Singleton.
"We were able to intercept a lot of passes through the box and blocked a lot of shots too," added the Beaverton, Oregon native.
As pleased as Merrimack was with its penalty killing success, Northeastern coach Jim Madigan seemed equally frustrated with his team's inability to create space and get good opportunities on the power play.
"They're a tough team to play against. They've got very good goaltending. They pack it in really tight at the net. They mug you. It's hard to get any open space around their net," explained Madigan.
Merrimack had a lead after the first period for just the seventh time all season. The Warriors capitalized on the momentum they gained killing the penalties and went to work on a power play of their own. Little-used Justin Hussar, playing on the power play to fill the void of Gustafsson, snapped home a shot over the blocker of Clay Witt with 6:12 to go in the opening period.
"Guys stepped up and did their job as Bill Belichick would say. Justin Hussar was a late addition to the power play when Hampus got gassed. He goes in and scores a goal. Those are the types of efforts you need, especially in the playoffs," said Dennehy.
Marc Biega and Jace Hennig were credited with assists on the sequence that was the culmination of a good power play that saw the visitors move the puck crisply around the offensive zone.
"They moved it really well. We couldn't get the clears we wanted," said Madigan.
Merrimack added to its lead to give Dennehy's team a 2-0 lead going into the second intermission. With 1:50 left in the middle frame the Warriors gained the zone in transition. Mathieu Tibbet dropped it back to defenseman Jonathan Lashyn whose shot was tipped home in the mid slot by Hennig.
Despite playing down a man for 12:13 of the first 40 minutes Merrimack was only being outshot 19-18 thanks to winning the even strength possession.
Northeastern came out like gangbusters in the third period, throwing everything it had at the Merrimack net. The Huskies broke the ice and got the puck past Tirronen 4:07 into the third. As he has so many times this season Zach Aston-Reese came up with a clutch goal. After receiving a lead pass from Mike Szmatula, he roofed a shot near-side over the glove.
"That was a huge goal to get us back in the game. Down 2-0, to break the ice got us some life," Madigan said.
The Huskies forced overtime when they finally made the most of a power play opportunity. Mike McMurtry chipped the puck past Tirronen with a lot of traffic near the Merrimack goal. Kevin Roy and Matt Benning assisted on the goal that came with 10:14 to play in regulation.
The two teams meet again Saturday at 4 p.m. inside Matthews Arena in the second game of the best-of-three series. The contest will be aired on the New England Sports Network (NESN).
"We have to bounce back [Saturday]. We're down 1-0. You have to win two in this series. We're just focused on game two and coming back tomorrow and playing like we did in the third period for an entire game," said Madigan.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior, high school and prep hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.