Merrimack advances to first HE finale

By Jake Seiner/DFP Staff

Over the course of it’s 4-1 Hockey East tournament semifinal win over the University of New Hampshire Friday night at the TD Garden, Merrimack College got quite a few fortunate bounces.

Just not the first one.

Twenty-five seconds in, UNH defenseman Blake Kessel flipped a puck into the MC zone. The dump took an odd hop right in front of Merrimack goalie Joe Cannata and skipped up over the goalie and into the cage.

“It’s a good thing I’m not a shortstop,” Cannata said about the play.

It was the kind of disastrous bounce that could unwind even the most destiny-guided squad.

Except the goal didn’t count. Officials called for a review of the goal, and determined that a UNH player was offsides by half a step when the puck bounced up and over Cannata.

“Right away, that first puck bounces in, even though it was a non-goal, it could put question marks in the goalie’s head,” MC coach Mark Dennehy said. “I love how our team went over and tapped him on the pads. They know that we’re here because of him.”

Cannata would go on to shine the rest of the way, carrying Merrimack to its first ever Hockey East final with a 29-save performance.

The battle with Boston College affords Merrimack its first shot at an HE crown in program history, a fact Dennehy downplayed after the game.

“They storyline’s about the players,” Dennehy said. “It’s about these guys and they deserve a shot at the title. It’s something that was on our list of goals, so I’m happiest for them.”

Even after the waived goal, UNH got on the board first. Stevie Moses ensured that just as a Merrimack power play expired, one-timing a pass from Mike Borisenok through Cannata’s butterflied legs.

The lead lasted just four minutes, with Merrimack’s Ryan Flanigan netting the equalizer on a short-handed attempt. Hockey East Second-Team All Star Stephane Da Costa started the play, turning a neutral zone turnover into a 2-on-1 break the other way.

Da Costa found Flanigan with the puck near the hashes, and after a brief pause, Flanigan sniped it by UNH goalie Matt Di Girolamo for the tying tally.

UNH responded with a series of quality scoring chances, many coming from its top line of Paul Thompson, Phil DeSimone, and Mike Sislo.

But it was Merrimack that struck next when Brendan Ellis’ point shot was first tipped by a UNH defender and again by Merrimack forward Elliot Sheen right in front. The double-deflection threw Di Girolamo off the scent, and the puck slid between the goalie and the near-side post for the go-ahead goal.

“I just kind of parked myself in front,” Sheen said. “I think it hit off the ‘D’ then ricocheted off my stick in front there.”

Merrimack put the game on ice with six minutes to play in the third. After a flurry of Merrimack shot attempts were blocked in front by three UNH defenders, Mike Collins threw the puck toward the crease from behind the goal line. The puck bounced off one of the downed defenders and squeaked in to stretch the lead to 3-1.

Sheen added his second goal –– a short-handed empty-netter –– with 7.7 seconds to play.

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