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UMass eliminated from Hockey East playoff contention with overtime loss at Merrimack

NORTH ANDOVER — After the University of Massachusetts made a wild comeback to force overtime, Merrimack broke the Minutemen’s heart and knocked them out of postseason contention.

Off a faceoff to UMass goalie Steve Mastalerz’s right, Connor Toomey knocked the rebound off a Brendan Ellis shot into the left side of the net to give the Warriors a 4-3 win, 1 minute, 45 seconds into the extra session.

The loss mixed with Maine’s 4-3 win at New Hampshire knocked the Minutemen (11-19-3, 8-16-2) out of the Hockey East playoff picture for the first time since 2001-02 season.

Trailing 2-0 and about to go on a power play, UMass coach John Micheletto elected to pull Mastalerz with 5:29 left in the game, starting a chaotic final stretch.

Shane Walsh got the Minutemen on the board with 4:01 left, but Merrimack scored 49 seconds later to make it 3-1.

Branden Gracel’s faceoff dominance proved critical in the final stretch. He won a draw in the left-wing circle and slid it across to Conor Sheary, who tapped it past Warrior goalie Sam Marotta with 2:37 left to make it 3-2.

After his team iced the puck on two consecutive possessions, Merrimack (15-14-6, 13-10-3) coach Mark Denehy called timeout to take his tired players off the ice. It allowed UMass to put Gracel back in and the junior won the faceoff back to Darren Rowe. Marotta blocked Rowe’s shot, but Rocco Carzo popped in the rebound to tie the game with 40.4 seconds left setting off a celebration on the UMass bench.

“We knew we needed a point,” senior captain Kevin Czepiel said. “When Roc scored that goal, it was the best feeling of my life.”

The excitement was short-lived.

“It went from top to bottom,” Czepiel said. “That was the worst.”

UMass will close the season Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center. Seniors Czepiel, Carzo, Rowe and Eddie Olczyk will be honored as part of senior night. The ceremonies will take place after the game this year.

“I told them we were going to come out and win tomorrow and play with some pride,” Micheletto said. “The season is not over. We play 34 games. The playoffs are a bonus. We need to collect ourselves, put the emotion aside and make sure we come out and play Massachusetts hockey.”

The Minutemen, who were missing No. 2 scorer Michael Pereira with a head injury, struggled early to produce scoring chances.

UMass was fortunate to get out of the first period only trailing 1-0 as Mastalerz stopped 18 shots, including Jordan Heywood’s first shot from the left-wing faceoff circle. The save seemed to knock him off balance opening up just enough of the near side of the net for Heywood to flip home his own rebound with 9:07 left in the first.

The Minutemen came out on the attack in the second period and outshot the Warriors 18-5, but none of those attempts got behind Marotta.

Mastalerz made a great skate save on Shawn Bates with 14:35 left to keep the deficit at one goal. He stopped Quinn Gould’s bid shortly after but amidst traffic in front of the UMass goalie, John Gustaffson smacked the rebound behind Mastalerz to make it 2-0 with 14:04 left.

Micheletto wasn’t surprised his team forced overtime.

“I knew we were in a difficult position and we obviously knew we had put ourselves there,” Micheletto said. “I never doubted that our guys would fight to the end.”

NOTES: Olczyk suffered what appeared to be a right shoulder injury late in the first period and did not return. His status is uncertain for Saturday.

“It certainly didn’t look positive from the initial evaluation,” Micheletto said.

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