There have been several milestones that the Merrimack men's ice hockey team has lay claim to over the past four seasons.
It all began in 2009-10, when the Warriors punched a return ticket to the Hockey East Tournament after finishing in sixth place in the regular season standings, earning the team's first postseason berth in six years.
Then, a year later, marked the most memorable campaign in the program's Division I history; Merrimack set a single-season record for wins at the DI level and advanced all the way to the Hockey East Championship and earned its second-ever NCAA Tournament berth in the process.
Following another return to the playoffs the year after, Merrimack entered the 2012-13 campaign pegged to finish eighth in the conference according to the Preseason Coaches Poll. There were plenty of questions surrounding a squad that graduated its all-time goaltending leader in Joe Cannata and lacked a returner scorer who had eclipsed the 30-point plateau from a year ago.
But with the emergence of junior netminder Sam Marotta (Bridgewater, Mass.), along with the return to dominance of junior forward Mike Collins (Boston, Mass.), Merrimack rebounded from a slow start in the first half with an impressive second-half surge that helped set up one of the more memorable contests played at Lawler Arena in recent memory.
Despite all of the success in recent years under the guidance of head coach Mark Dennehy that had elevated the program from conference doormat into perennial playoff contender – success that included three straight trips to the Hockey East Tournament, a berth in the Finals in 2011, and a berth in the NCAA Tournament that same year – Merrimack had never owned sole possession of first place in Hockey East in the month of February or later during its Division I history.
On a Saturday night in February, with defending national champion Boston College in town and with first place on the line, the Warriors had a chance to check off another impressive milestone with an upset win over the Eagles.
But that was no easy task, despite Merrimack holding an impressive 3-1-1 record against BC in its last five games played at Lawler Arena.
Coming off a third national title in five years, the Eagles entered February appearing to round into their customary post-Beanpot form that has defined their title runs since 2008. In fact, over the past four seasons, BC owned a 48-4-3 record in games played after the Beanpot entering this particular Saturday night showdown.
That would not deter the Warriors, who battled valiantly and went toe-to-toe with the reigning conference and national champions over two periods.
The theme of the game, however, would be Merrimack's plethora of power play chances, but through two periods, the Warriors could not convert on their first six chances, and in the middle stanza it was Quinn Smith who gave the visiting Eagles a one-goal lead after two periods of play.
After the second intermission, the Eagles again came out of the gate, Marotta stood tall in net, coming up with two huge saves on a pair of breakaways just minutes apart on Hobey Baker finalist Johnny Gaudreau, preserving the one-goal deficit and keeping the Warriors in their biggest game of the year.
Those stops turned the tide for the home side, which began to generate scoring chances of its own. Finally, the equalizer came off of a faceoff win from junior Rhett Bly (Regina, Saskatchewan), who sent a pass to John Heffernan (Scituate, Mass.), who promptly fired a shot that was blocked at first before rookie Ben Bahe (Stillwater, Minn.) kicked the biscuit back to Heffernan in the slot, where he buried it for the game-tying tally.
With the momentum officially turned, Merrimack withstood a few late chances from BC before the horn sounded prompting overtime. For a team that had come so far over recent years and had taken down milestone after milestone, its most impressive one to date was just a sudden-death goal away.
Both sides went back and forth over the extra session, but with a minute to go, a tie seemed inevitable.
But then, an interference call against the Eagles handed Merrimack its ninth power play chance of the contest. And the home side did not wait long; sophomore Connor Toomey (Billerica, Mass.) picked up a rebound on a shot from Collins on the back door, and slammed it into the open net to send Lawler Arena into frenzy.
With 34.7 seconds remaining in overtime, it was Toomey's tally that sealed the dramatic win over the fourth-ranked Eagles, and more importantly, it was that marker that moved Merrimack into first place in Hockey East the latest into a season in the program's Division I history.
From there on out, the Warriors settled for sixth place and a fourth consecutive trip to the Hockey East Tournament, where they would bow out in the Quarterfinals. But that dramatic victory against Boston College will not be forgotten in years to come, adding one more milestone to a list that continues to grow.
And with the return of all of the team's top-10 scorers from last season, including all-conference honorees Collins and junior Jordan Heywood (Regina, Saskatchewan), as well as Marotta, those milestones should continue to pile up in 2013-14 and beyond.
This is the third of 10 Merrimack Top Moments of 2012-13 Installments.
10. Women's Crew Wins NE-10 Cup V4 Title
9. Football's Historic Victory Vaults Voegeli to NFL
8. Men's Hockey Team's Dramatic OT Win over BC
7. Friday, June 28
6. Monday, July 1
5. Wednesday, July 3
4. Friday, July 5
3. Monday, July 8
2. Wednesday, July 10
1. Friday, July 12