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Merrimack battles late, earns hard-fought 2-2 tie with UConn

Merrimack senior Brian Christie scored with 56.5 seconds remaining in regulation to lift the Warriors to a 2-2 tie with UConn on Saturday night at Lawler Arena.

Merrimack's Brian Christie scored the game-tying goal in the final minute on Saturday night.
Merrimack's Brian Christie scored the game-tying goal in the final minute on Saturday night.
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. -- The best word to best describe Merrimack's play for significant stretches of Saturday night's game at Lawler Arena would be dominant.

One could assume the final result, but hockey is a strange, strange game.

The Warriors outshot visiting Connecticut by a 45-23 margin, but needed senior captain Brian Christie to scratch home the game-tying goal with just 56.5 seconds remaining in regulation to salvage a 2-2 tie and earn a single point in the Hockey East race.

"That's Hockey East, right? It's not easy," Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy said. "You'd think that with 80 shot attempts to 34, we wouldn't have to pull the goalie to tie it up late, but I'll tell you what, that team can defend and they do an excellent job of keeping you to the outside."

UConn sophomore Tanner Creel did all he could to keep his team in the game, making at least 11 saves in each regulation periods en route to crushing his previous career-high with 43 stops.

Although Creel stood on his head and gave the Huskies a chance to win, it was Merrimack's play in the third period that proved to be the difference in the game to UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh.

"In the end, after I watch the tape, it won't surprise me if we got what we deserved," Cavanaugh said. "I thought we played a pretty good hockey game on the road, but in the third period we didn't play as well and that was partly because Merrimack was taking it to us."

Junior defenseman Joona Kunnas mustered the game's first goal and his first of the season for the Huskies at the 12:04 mark. The Finish native's shot from the center point surged through traffic and beat Merrimack's Collin Delia.

Senior Shawn Pauly was camped out in front of the net as the shot sailed through the slot. The puck looked to change directions, but Kunnas got credit for his first goal in 28 games.

The Warriors controlled play territorially through the first 40 minutes of play, collecting a combined 26-17 shots on goal advantage. Fifteen of those opportunities came in the middle period, but Creel stood tall to keep the Huskies ahead by a goal.

"I was proud of the guys, I thought we played well for large stretches of that game," Dennehy said. "They got a couple of looks and the puck goes in the back of the net, but it was a hard-fought point."

Delia kept Merrimack's deficit at 1-0 in the final two minutes of the opening period as he made a strong save to deny freshman Tage Thompson on a rebound.

At the other end, Creel did not have to make any stops of the highlight reel variety, but held the fort all night long. It was a strong bounce-back performance for the sophomore from Illinois as he gave up six goals in a 7-4 loss to Sacred Heart on Jan. 26.

"Any time you give up six, it's just not acceptable. Whether or not it was my fault, you have to find a way to stop the puck," Creel said. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel nice to come back with a point on the road, and at least just give the team a chance to win tonight."

Jace Hennig scored the Merrimack goal that seemed like a matter of time just 2:50 into the third period, tying the score at 1-1. Sophomore classmate Brett Seney fed the puck from behind the net, where Hennig knocked home his fourth goal of the season.

The Warriors recorded 12 straight shots on goal to begin the final frame, but the visitors scored on one of their first three to jump back into the lead. Freshman sensation Max Letunov set a UConn rookie scoring record with his 15th goal of the season at 14:17.

Classmate Max Kalter took the initial shot on Delia, but Letunov broke the rebound through Delia from between the circles with just one hand on his stick. The Coyotes prospect now has points in eight consecutive games dating back to Jan. 10 at Arizona State.

"It was a 2-on-1 and Max Kalter made a great shot," Letunov said. "He wasn't shooting to score. He was looking for a rebound, which obviously happened, and I was lucky enough to be there to put it in."

The Warriors called timeout with 2:22 remaining and maintained possession of the puck with an extra skater on the ice until knotting the game in its final minute.

UConn failed the clear the zone, and sophomore Brett Seney fed Christie with a beautiful pass from behind the net for his sixth goal of the season. Christie collected the pass and flicked the puck over Creel's shoulder, lifting Merrimack to its first point in conference play since tying the Huskies in Hartford on Dec. 11.

"I think that any time a team scores on you in the last minute, you feel like you should have won the game," Cavanaugh said. "Let's also understand that Merrimack played really well in the third period and I thought Merrimack outplayed us in the third period."