Men’s Hockey: Catamounts Clinch Home Ice in Hockey East Opening Round, Top Merrimack 3-2

Courtesy Vermont Sports Information

BURLINGTON – The 15th-ranked Vermont Catamounts used 27 saves from Stefanos Lekkas and a strong third period to snap Merrimack’s eight-game unbeaten streak in a 3-1 Hockey East victory on Friday night at sold out Gutterson Fieldhouse.

UVM improved to 18-10-4 and 10-7-4 in the league, posting double-digit Hockey East wins for the third time in the last four seasons. The Catamounts locked up at least the 6-seed in the Hockey East First Round, securing their best regular season finish since 2009, and will host either Maine or UMass next weekend in a best-of-three series in Burlington.

Merrimack dropped to 13-14-6 (7-8-6 HEA), suffering its first loss in more than a month.

“The whole thing we want to do is be playing our best hockey,” said head coach Kevin Sneddon. “We can’t just turn it on in the second season. We want to be playing with a lot of confidence going into next weekend. We played well last weekend against Boston College on the road and we played extremely well, playoff-style hockey, tonight as well and that will be the goal going into Saturday.”

Merrimack carried the play early with Brett Seney’s partial breakaway on Lekkas 19 seconds into the game. Lekkas stopped the shot and came up big for the Catamounts on the ensuing penalty kill. UVM held the Warriors scoreless in the first period despite being outshot 8-1 in the first 10 minutes.

Vermont finally broke the deadlock at 15:42 of the first period on a power play chance of its own. Freshman forward Ross Colton collected the puck from Brendan Bradley at the center point, deked his defender, and ripped a wrist shot into the upper left corner past Collin Delia (30 saves) blocker side. Bradley’s assist was the 50th of his UVM career.

The Catamounts struck again on the power play to double the lead at 5:27 of the middle frame. Bradley fed his fellow co-captain Mario Puskarich at the right circle and Puskarich fired a low shot at the net. From the right doorstep, Brian Bowen was able to find the puck and tip it low inside the left post for his team-high 12th goal of the season and fourth in the last three games.

MC’s Chris LeBlanc was assessed a major penalty for elbowing Chris Muscoby at 13:44 of the second. The Catamounts were unable to find the back of the net on the major and picked up successive penalties in the waning seconds of the period as Merrimack carried over 1:43 of 5-on-3 time into the final period.

The Warriors cut into Vermont’s lead just 41 seconds into the third during the two-man advantage. Hampus Gustafsson and Jonathan Kovacevic combined and fed the puck to freshman Sami Tavernier on the left wing. Tavernier controlled along the left goal line and outlasted Lekkas to tuck the puck inside the left post.

Vermont pushed back and regained a two-goal cushion at the 6:27 mark. Matt O’Donnell‘s shot was saved by Delia after a Jarrid Priviteradeflection, but the puck popped out to Craig Puffer in the low slot as the sophomore knocked it home to bring the score to 3-1.

Merrimack spent its timeout with 1:41 remaining in regulation and pulled Delia but the Catamounts kept the Warriors at bay to preserve their 10th Hockey East victory.

Vermont can earn the 5-seed tomorrow night by beating Merrimack paired with a win by last-place UMass over Providence. Otherwise, UVM would remain the 6-seed and host the 11-seed Maine in a rematch of the 2015 Hockey East First Round.