MANCHESTER, N.H. — It was ironic that Merrimack lost its first NCAA tournament game on a bit of a fluke goal.
After all, the Warriors had proved repeatedly all season that they were no fluke.
The skeptics had ample reason to doubt the Warriors as they marched through a historic season. In 21 previous seasons in Hockey East, they had never had a winning record. Just four years ago, in coach Mark Dennehy’s second season, they finished with a woeful 3-27-4 record.
Instead of accepting their fate as a small school with much less of a pedigree than league rivals such as Boston College, Boston University, Maine and New Hampshire, Dennehy and his staff took some calculated risks when recruiting and pulled off some tremendous coups, most notably with Parisian Stephane Da Costa and goaltender Joe Cannata.
So this year they never did falter, earning home ice in the playoffs and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Dennehy’s coaching counterpart would be the legendary Jeff Jackson, who has taken teams to national championships before. Yet Saturday they dominated early and looked anything but nervous.
Yet a few fluky goals made the difference. The first was a harmless-looking shot by Anders Lee that Cannata didn’t glove well enough. Even then, it hit the crossbar before going in. “That was huge,” Jackson acknowledged. “It was a momentum changer.”
No question: Up until that point, Notre Dame had looked fairly listless as Merrimack cycled and struck. But that goal made it 3-2, and the momentum was all for the Fighting Irish through regulation. At the news conference, Dennehy expressed some frustration about the fact that he was slow to adjust in the third period as Notre Dame finally found a way to counter what Merrimack was throwing at them.
The Warriors regrouped during the overtime intermission and came out firing, to the point where Jackson wisely called a timeout. But then the Irish scored on their first and only chance of the overtime — a shot that caromed off of Warriors defenseman Brendan Ellis before slipping through Cannata.
In some ways, it was the typical script for an overtime game: They more often end on a bizarre play than a gorgeous one. It didn’t seem to make the result hurt any more … or any less.
“It’s tough to lose no matter what,” Merrimack junior Karl Stollery said. “It’s overtime, and anything can happen. That’s the game of hockey, though. It’s tough either way but you can’t hang your head over it.”
“That’s the game of hockey,” agreed senior Adam Ross. “People say it’s a game of mistakes.”
Stollery wasn’t quite sure how it even went in. “I guess I’ll look at it later,” he said. “I don’t really want to, though.”
Dennehy was philosophical over it. “That’s what I love about coaching sports,” he said. “It’s a microcosm of life. There are breaks, but they even out in the end.”
Still stunned over the sudden loss, the coach and players had just started to reflect on what this historic season had meant. “It’s about the people with we surround ourselves with,” Dennehy said. “You only see tidbits but these student-athletes are so special. You see how determined and disciplined they are. Even if we had won the national championship, I would’ve been sad to see these seniors go. The school’s in debt to them and the sacrifices they made.”
“It was a lot of hard work,” Ross said, reflecting on the quantum leap that the program made through his four-year journey as a Warriors player. “Coach prepared us, and our strength coach prepared us. We had good guys that composed a good team, and we climbed the ladder to where we are. Obviously, we didn’t want to just make it here; tonight we wanted to be on the other side of things. We’re not satisfied. But the past two years have been great; we’ve grown a lot of as a team and as a program. There are a lot of good years to come for this program.”
As improbable as that prospect seemed just three or four years ago, that seems likely now. Barring any early departures, the Warriors will return a strong nucleus with Da Costa, Cannata and Jesse Todd. Junior Jeff Velleca didn’t make a lot of noise on the stat sheet this season but stood out Saturday. Four of the team’s six defensemen will return.
Make no mistake: Merrimack did not get a raw deal Saturday. The Warriors played well enough to win, but Notre Dame could’ve ended it in regulation with a bit more luck. Either team likely would’ve been a tough opponent for New Hampshire.
But it’s also clear that Merrimack enjoyed some hard-earned success despite having to recruit against some major brand-name teams in college hockey. That’s no fluke.