BOSTON, Mass. - Sophomore Vinny Saponari scored the final two goals of the game, including the game-winner early in the third period, to lift the Boston University men's ice hockey team to a 3-2 comeback victory over Merrimack on Friday evening at Agganis Arena to open a best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series. The third-seeded Terriers (17-15-3) erased a 2-0 deficit to move within one win of advancing to the Hockey East semifinals for a record ninth straight year.
Sixth-seeded Merrimack (15-18-2), appearing in its first league quarterfinal since 2004, appeared to be in good position to take its first step towards an upset following goals by senior Pat Kimball and sophomore Jeff Velleca to take a 2-0 lead just over six minutes into the second period.
BU started its comeback midway through the second when sophomore David Warsofsky potted his 12th goal of the year on a breakaway. Saponari tied the contest under two minutes later with his first tally of the night.
The game-winner came on an impressive individual effort by Saponari, as he picked off a puck near the BU blue line and skated all the way down to the Warriors' goal before sliding through the slot and backhanding the puck past Merrimack goaltender Joe Cannata at 4:11 of the third.
The goal held up through the rest of the regulation thanks to sophomore goaltender Kieran Millan, who made exactly half of his 26 saves in the final stanza to help BU take the first game of the series. The result overshadowed an impressive 38-save performance by Cannata.
Merrimack entered the weekend with the nation's third-best power play, but the Terrier penalty kill was up to the task, holding the visitors scoreless on six man advantages. BU outshot Merrimack, 41-28, for the contest.
Kimball picked a timely occasion for his first goal of the season. A clearing pass by junior Matt Moulakelis from just outside the Merrimack crease was misplayed by a Terrier defender at center ice, allowing Kimball to gather the puck and go in all alone before beating Millan 8:44 into the contest.
The Warriors took a 2-0 lead at 6:14 of the first when what seemed like a harmless backhanded shot in transition by Velleca from the foot of the right circle went off Millan's shoulder and popped up and over him before sneaking inside the left post. Junior Chris Barton assisted on the play.
Warsofsky caused a turnover to help set up his goal and get the Terriers on the board. The second-year defenseman broke up a pass at the top of the BU zone and the puck bounced off senior Zach Cohen and made its way back to Warsofsky on a two-on-none break with junior Nick Bonino. Warsofsky skated in and beat Cannata five-hole at 10:10 of the second.
Now with the momentum, BU wasted little time in mustering an equalizer, as Saponari made it a 2-2 affair just 115 seconds after Warsofsky's tally. The play began with a shot by Warsofsky from the left point that was blocked before the puck bounced around the front of the crease. Bonino corralled the puck and attempted a wrap-around, but couldn't quite curl it around the left post. Saponari was there, however, to push the puck to the back of net and tie the contest.
The two teams will meet for the second game of the quarterfinal series on Saturday (March 13) at Agganis Arena. Game time is set for 7 p.m.