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Merrimack downs UNH, punches Quarterfinals ticket in Hockey East

Merrimack made two second-period goals stand up in a 2-1 win over New Hampshire in a deciding Game 3 in the opening round of the 2016 Hockey East Tournament on Sunday night at Lawler Arena.

Matt Dewkett

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. -- New Hampshire's top line of senior Dan Correale, sophomore Andrew Poturalski, and junior Tyler Kelleher is one of the best in college hockey.

With just about a minute left in a one-goal game Sunday night at Lawler Arena, Poturalski had a point-blank chance at the front of Merrimack freshman Drew Vogler's net.

Poturalski punched away a golden attempt by the nation's second-leading point scorer, allowing the seventh-seeded Warriors to hold on to a 2-1 victory in a deciding Game 3 in the opening round of the 2016 Hockey East Tournament.

"That one scared me a little bit," Vogler said. "He was in front, and thankfully I got out there in time. It was a bang-bang play."

The Warriors are 4-1-0 in Vogler's last five starts and was a key reason Merrimack will live to see another weekend, heading to defending national champion Providence for the first-ever meeting in Hockey East postseason play.

The teams skated to a scoreless first period with the Warriors holding a 13-8 shooting advantage. It took a little longer than the Lawler crowd of 2,549 fans hoped for, but Merrimack cracked the scoreboard first.

Freshman Derek Petti lifted the Warriors to a 1-0 lead with his third goal of the series at the 8:01 mark of the second period. The Tewksbury, Mass., native followed up an initial try from sophomore defenseman Marc Biega with a drive up the left side.

"I don't know you don't recruit more players from the Middlesex Black Bears and Tewksbury High? He's a great story, he really is," Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy said of Petti. "He's getting more confidence. I also need to tip my cap to Ludvig Larsson who filled in there and played well with (Michael) Babcock out (due to an injury)."

Biega's classmate Jace Hennig doubled Merrimack's lead at 18:34, using a great individual effort to score his fifth goal of the season.

Hennig drove up the wing, turned a UNH defender around and scored after cutting back to the middle of the ice. Biega was the lone Warrior to register an assist on their second goal of the contest.

Chris LeBlanc nearly put the Warriors ahead by a commanding three-goal margin shortly after Hennig's goal as he burst ahead for a loose puck, but UNH sophomore goaltender Daniel Tirone blocked the puck aside for one of his 13 second-period saves.

"He played great," UNH head coach Dick Umile said of Tirone, who made an even 40 saves on the night, a mark he surpassed in each of the series' first two games. "Second half of the season, when he was in a groove, we just had difficulty scoring. At the beginning of the season, Danny wasn't on his A-game, but in the second half he's been great for us."

The Warriors were unable to convert on a major power play late in the second period that carried into the third. UNH lost top defenseman Matias Cleland after he was assessed a five-minute contact to the head penalty for a heavy hit on Merrimack sophomore Mathieu Tibbet.

The missed opportunities allowed the Wildcats to claw their way back in the game, moving within 2-1 on a power play goal off the stick of rookie defenseman Matt Dawson at the 10:34 mark of the third period.

Freshman Ara Nazarian, a product of Malden Catholic High School and nearby Boxford, Mass., had the primary assist that set up Dawson to drive through the middle of the ice. His wrist shot was the only puck to beat Vogler on his 27-save night.

The best teams find ways to win, no matter what. That was the case for Dennehy's club in the series-closing game.

"We didn't play as well tonight as we did the first two nights," Dennehy said. "I think part of it was, we just wanted it so bad. We had guys trying to do too much. I think we could have gotten pucks behind them all night long and just grinded it out."

Merrimack finished the final frame without a power-play conversion in four attempts, its only chances with a man advantage all game. For Umile, the chances were certainly there.

The most bizarre penalty of the bench was a too many men on the ice call assessed after UNH's Chris Miller was not let out of the penalty box following Cleland's five-minute major penalty, which he served.

"We had a crazy third period with all the crap that we had to fight through, with the five-minute major, the 4-on-3, and the crazy call out of the penalty box, which was unbelievable," Umile said. "They just hung in there and did a great job on the kill to give us a chance."