NORTH ANDOVER -- It was the type of game both teams are accustomed to playing, but in the end Notre Dame came away with a 3-2 overtime win over Merrimack in the school's first trip back to Lawler Rink since 1991.
"It was a hard fought game. We were fortunate to score first. Unfortunately there weren't any more shots to come back after overtime. It was a typical Hockey East game," remarked Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson.
It was a very even game, but the momentum was tilting towards Notre Dame as regulation came to an end. The Irish had Merrimack hemmed in its own zone for large stretches in the final five minutes of the third period.
Play went back and forth in the extra session, but two Notre Dame freshmen combined for the game winner at 1:44 of the extra session along with a little bit of a lucky bounce. After receiving a pass from senior defenseman Robbie Russo, Jake Evans gained the zone before finding Connor Hurley in front. Hurley, a Buffalo Sabres pick, stopped the puck with his foot before chipping the puck over the shoulder of Merrimack goaltender Rasmus Tirronen.
"The positive thing was that the young line that scored the winning goal, they were starting to get some confidence. They were starting to make some plays in the offensive zone which gave us more offensive depth," commented Jackson on the all-freshman line that was out for the overtime goal.
"We'll take it. We didn't get many bounces a week ago," added Jackson, alluding to his team's sweep at the hands of Minnesota last weekend.
It was a tough luck loss for a Merrimack team that lost at home for the first time all season. It was also the first time that the Warriors had been outshot in 10 games this year.
"I didn't think we played very well. That wasn't our best game. A lot of it has to do with our opponent. They make it pretty uncomfortable. They took us out of some things we like to do," said Dennehy, whose team has been involved in nine games decided by a goal or less.
Notre Dame came out strong in the first half of the opening period and was able to come up with several quality scoring chances by creating space in the Merrimack zone. The Irish capitalized on one of those chances when sophomore Vince Hinostroza banged home a rebound off a shot by Thomas DiPauli at the 4:44 mark. Jordan Gross picked up the secondary assist on the goal that took the home crowd out of the game early.
Towards the end of the period Merrimack was able to generate some offense of its own thanks to two power plays and finally establishing forecheck pressure. The Warriors continued that positive momentum after the intermission and capitalized just 42 seconds into the second period. Falling to the ice Brian Christie tipped in a centering feed from Justin Mansfield who was streaking into the zone down the right side.
Merrimack controlled the majority of the play in the second period and had a golden opportunity to take the lead with just over five minutes to play in the middle frame. Dan Kolomatis snuck down from the point on the weak side and took a few steps in before taking a wrister destined for the top corner. Notre Dame goaltender Chad Katunar flung his glove out to keep the score tied.
"Chad has been really good. His numbers aren't as good as Cal [Petersen] but he's had some of the tougher games. Chad played really well and made some big saves for us," said Jackson.
That save proved pivotal as a flukey goal just over a minute later gave the Irish the 2-1 lead after 40 minutes. With the teams playing four aside Peter Schneider and Anders Bjork did a nice job of playing give and go in the Warrior zone along the boards. Schneider broke free and pushed the puck on goal. Merrimack goaltender Rasmus Tirronen sprawled out, attempting to keep the puck out, but it slithered between his legs for defenseman Andy Ryan to pinch down and poke it home.
Merrimack pulled even once again 5:12 into the third period on a neutral zone turnover by the Irish. Jonathan Lashyn picked off the errant pass and fed Brett Seney who wheeled through through center ice before coming down the left side and snapping a shot over Katunar's glove.
"I knew soon as he curled that he had speed to get by the [defenseman]. Then to make the shot is pretty special. He's got some gifts," said Dennehy of his freshman who scored his fifth of the season.
The two teams will meet again Saturday night in the series finale in a game that can be seen locally on WBIN-TV and nationally on ESPN3.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.