By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Only four weekends remain in the college hockey season and, as usual, there is a battle for the top in Hockey East.
For Boston College and Merrimack, Friday night was a fight for first place with only 1 point separating the teams.
With 34.7 seconds left in overtime, Merrimack sophomore Connor Toomey beat Parker Milner (40 saves) on a rebound from outside the left post during a power play for a 2-1 victory at North Andover.
With the goal, Merrimack (14-10-5, 12-6-2) leapfrogged BC (17-8-2, 12-7-1) into first place.
Just 6 points separate first place from sixth.
All in all, it wasn’t the happiest of days for BC. The bus taking the team to Lawlor Arena was stuck in the heavy holiday weekend traffic. A broken pane of glass during warm-ups added to the delay with the puck drop at 7:53 p.m. rather than the scheduled 7:30.
And worst of all for the Eagles, they were a man short.
Junior forward Kevin Hayes of Dorchester, the Eagles’ fourth-leading scorer (6-18—24) was suspended indefinitely.
BC coach Jerry York declined to go into details, but did indicate Hayes could rejoin the team at a later date.
“I want to address that really quick,’’ said York. “Kevin Hayes has been suspended from our team due to a violation of just our rules. I’ll watch him and how he comes back from it and I will determine at what time he will be eligible to play for us again.’’
Merrimack got off to a dominant start through the first 15 minutes. The Warriors had 12 shots to just four for BC, but it was a scoreless game heading into the first intermission.
That changed in the chippy second. At 8:58, there was a scramble in front of the Merrimack net and BC sophomore Quinn Smith gave the Eagles the lead. The officials went to a lengthy review to determine if the whistle had been blown prior to the puck crossing the line, but it was ruled a good goal.
It was the left wing’s fifth tally of the season and fourth in the last four games.
BC allowed Merrimack six power plays in the first 40 minutes, but the Warriors couldn’t convert.
One of the Eagles’ best chances of the second was by Johnny Gaudreau. The sophomore left wing had the puck in the left circle at 12:44 and got off a hard shot that ricocheted off the mask of Sam Marotta (39 saves) and bounced away.
Gaudreau had another opportunity just 30 seconds into the third when he tested Marotta on a backhander in deep, but the netminder denied the bid.
Merrimack pulled even at 12:57 when senior John Heffernan beat Milner from the left circle. It was his fourth goal of the season and ninth in his 60 career games.
With 1:49 remaining in OT, Merrimack had a strong scoring chance when sophomore right wing Josh Myers charged in on Milner. He tried to go five-hole, but the goalie gave him no opening.
But Toomey soon found one. With BC captain Pat Mullane whistled off for goaltender interference, the Warriors ended it.
“It was just a nice shot from [Jordan Heywood from the point] off the pad and it was lucky to sit there for me,’’ said Toomey.
If anyone was discounting Merrimack’s chances before, no one is now.
“I think in a lot of people’s minds, we’re not the powerhouse of the league,’’ said Toomey. “They think of BC, BU, but I think with the 30 guys in our locker room, we know we can play with any team in the league.
“We believe in ourselves and we truly believed tonight that we could win, and first place feels pretty nice.’’Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.