NORTH ANDOVER — Ten days ago, the Boston College Eagles trudged out to the Lawler Arena parking lot and climbed onto their bus with the cold, leaden feeling of an overtime loss draped around their shoulders like a wet blanket.
Sunday, they were in the same spot, climbing onto the same bus, but this time, they were full of energy, and their steps were light after Quinn Smith punched in a rebound at 2:23 of overtime to lift No. 4 Boston College over No. 17 Merrimack, 2-1.
BC (18-8-3, 13-7-2) moved into a three-way tie for first place in Hockey East with New Hampshire and Providence (28 points), while Merrimack (14-11-6, 12-7-3) landed in fourth, a point back. Lowell is another point back in fifth and Boston University is sixth at 24.
“Boy, what a difference in the feeling getting on the bus,’’ said BC coach Jerry York about his team’s 2-1 loss to Merrimack last Friday. “It’s just part of being a coach and being a team, you’ve got to be able to handle both situations.’’
Patrick Brown started the winning play, taking the puck wide down the left side of the Merrimack zone and firing a wrist shot at Sam Marotta. The goalie made a stop and while Brown stabbed at the rebound, linemate Brooks Dyroff distracted the defense and Smith came in from the left side and rapped it past Marotta.
“He’s never been a goal scorer, when you look back through his career,’’ York said of Smith, a sophomore who collected his sixth goal of the season, all scored in the last nine games. “But he’s getting what we refer to as [former Eagle] Tony Penna goals, any goal that’s in the goal crease. He got one of those . . . just gritty and hard-nosed.’’
“The coaching staff has really been harping on getting pucks to the net,’’ said Smith. “That’s what I’m trying to do. Our line likes to have the puck down low and just go to the net and I’ve been fortunate to get a few pucks in scoring range and make the best of it.’’
BC got a sterling performance from goalie Parker Milner, who turned back 43 shots, and the Eagles managed to kill off a crucial 5-on-3 in the third period when the game was knotted at one. After BC’s Patrick Wey and Steven Whitney were whistled off 55 seconds apart, the Warriors had a great chance to break it open, but BC wouldn’t make room. Merrimack had a pair of slap shots deflected before they reached the net and lost the puck on a Kyle Bigos giveaway.
“Those are not good signs, when you don’t score on a 5-on-3,’’ said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. “We had one good look off of it; we weren’t executing. The puck wasn’t zipping around. Their penalty kill was excellent but we had an unforced error where we put the puck right on their stick. It’s just not being thorough. Those are signs that you’re not completely locked in.’’
If BC let this one slip away, it would not have been through the pads, or the glove, of Milner. He started the game by taking a shot off the facemask at about the four-minute mark, losing his mask but keeping his cool as he looked down to find the puck and smother it. He needed that cool as the Warriors took 20 shots in the first period.
It was Whitney, BC’s prolific senior wing, who opened the scoring, notching his 10th goal in 10 games and his 20th of the season, at 6:32 of the first period. Whitney, who York said is having a “magical season,’’ collected a drop from Bill Arnold along the left sideboards and flicked a wrist shot into the top right corner.
Merrimack cashed in its third power play of the first to tie the game at 12:43. Milner stopped the first shot by Shawn Bates and after Ben Bahe took a couple of backhand swipes at it, Bates got a second chance and rapped in a 10-foot shot.
Both teams play again Tuesday (rescheduled snow games), Merrimack at BU and BC hosting Lowell.
“We’re in a pennant race here,’’ said York. “It’s a process that you put yourself in, and five other teams in our league have done the same.’’