Shorthanded in the third period with the game tied 2-2, Nick Zabaneh got in the way of a Merrimack shot, chipped the puck forward and used his unmatched speed on the breakaway to snap home his first goal of the season from the high slot.
The senior forward, and penalty kill stalwart, gave the Terriers a 3-2 lead at 7:27 of the final frame with the extra-effort play in the eventual 5-2 win – and weekend sweep – over the Merrimack College Warriors (6-8-1, 2-6-1 Hockey East).
The goal was a testament to what Zabaneh has meant to the No. 4/5 Boston University men’s hockey team (11-4-1, 7-1-1 HE) in the first half of the season: a guy with unwavering grit who adds serious depth and a certain spunk to the Terriers’ bottom six.
“Really happy for Nick Zabaneh getting the shorthanded goal. Kid works everyday, he’s had a ton of chances this year just hasn’t gone in for him yet,” BU head coach Jay Pandolfo said postgame.
“He never stops working, never complains, knows his role. He can play center or wing for you. I’d argue he’s one of the fastest guys in college hockey – I won’t argue it, he definitely is.”
Zabaneh was moved to the fourth line this weekend, skating alongside graduate forward Sam Stevens and freshman forward Doug Grimes whom he supplemented well.
“[Stevens] is obviously one of the smartest players I’ve ever played with – really good defensively, works really hard,” Zabaneh said postgame. “[Grimes] is a big body, works really hard, really good on the forecheck and makes plays. Just try to get open for them, and things have been going really well so far.”
— Boston Hockey Blog (@BOShockeyblog) December 3, 2023
Well before Zabaneh’s shorthanded spark, sophomore forward Quinn Hutson got the Terriers going 23 seconds into the first period, burying the rebound off a Luke Tuch shot that went wide, bounced off the back boards and out to the right doorstep. Q. Hutson’s eighth goal of the season put BU up 1-0.
Merrimack found the equalizer at 7:46 with a tip-in goal from freshman forward Ethan Bono who stood sturdy in front of junior goaltender Mathieu Caron. Senior forward Alex Jefferies then lifted the Warriors to a 2-1 advantage at 14:46 on a 5-on-3 power play.
With both freshman defenseman Aiden Celebrini and Stevens in the box for interference and boarding, respectively, Jefferies one-timed a cross-crease pass home from the left circle and made the Terriers pay for their undisciplined play.
The Terriers got three power play opportunities in the middle frame to tie things up, but they couldn’t find a way to capitalize. While BU held Merrimack to three shots on goal to their own 14 in the second, the Warriors were able to shut down a majority of high-danger Terrier chances.
However, the Terriers came out in the third and delivered a four-goal period.
“I think they just believe in themselves,” Pandolfo said. “I think they believe that at any point, if they need to score a goal, they can. There’s belief in that room and I think we’ve seen it this year when we’ve been down.”
Jeremy Wilmer provided the momentum-shifter for the scarlet and white at 2:13 of the third period. The sophomore forward forced a Merrimack turnover, intercepting a Liam Dennison pass at the top of the defensive zone, and took off on the breakaway. Wilmer flipped the puck to his backhand and roofed it past Borgiel glove-side to knot things 2-2 for his second tuck of the season.
“Being down 2-1 going into the third period – I think we dominated the second period, we just couldn’t score – but I just had a feeling we were going to find a way to come back,” Pandolfo said.
After Zabaneh made it 3-2, he set up freshman defenseman Tom Willander for his third goal of the season at 16:30. Willander knocked in the rebound of Zabaneh’s wrister from just above the left circle for the 4-2 score at a pivotal point in the game.
Willander, who skated on the first pair with sophomore defenseman Lane Hutson this weekend, has really come into his own in the first half of his freshman campaign.
“It’s been a lot of fun. He’s a really crafty player so being on the ice with him, really anything can happen,” Willander said postgame. “Obviously there’s a lot of offense going on, so it’s really fun to be on the ice with him.”
Stevens topped off the night with an empty-net goal at 19:58 to bring the game to its final 5-2 score and send the Terriers into break with their third consecutive Hockey East sweep. What’s more, BU has not lost a conference game in regulation since Oct. 13 against the University of New Hampshire.
While Pandolfo was pleased with the two-win weekend, he said his team will focus on consistency in the second half of the season.
“We’re still looking for consistency – even shift to shift at times for our group,” Pandolfo said. “Just little things over the course of the game that catch up to you sometimes. We’re still not consistent enough as a team in how we play in all three zones.”
BU will now have 27 days off with its next game landing on Dec. 29 against Yale University. The Boston Hockey Blog will have continued coverage during the break, so be sure to follow along on Twitter (X) @BOShockeyblog and Instagram @boston.hockey.blog.