College Hockey:
Merrimack offers more proof that it was no fluke, despite fluky ending

— 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.

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  • catsonskates

    Congratulations, Warriors, on a fine season. Those last two ND goals were definitely flukey and I thought that you had them in the opening minutes of the overtime. It looks like your program has turned a corner and that you will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. And it’s great to see the fan support.
    See you next year.

    • bothsides

      I guess unless you are from the East, you don’t deserve any mention by USCHO reporters. I suppose who scored the winning goal doesn’t matter or anything else about ND– other than they were lucky– according to your reporting.

      • Bharvey13

        Nobody said they were lucky. its just that the goals were fluky. Strange things happen in hockey games. Things that can happen despite the level of play for both teams. Luck plays a part in almost everything. But ND wasn’t lucky. They didn’t outplay Merrimack for most of the game, but they were able to hang around and outplay them when it mattered. And this article is about Merrimack going from a 4 win season to a 24 win season in 4 years. And that they will be back next year. As a UNH fan, I’m not looking towards playing them in the coming season.

      • Go UNH

        How is ND football doing these days?

        • IrishHockeyFan

          win or lose, people still want to know, don’t they. I guess that means we still matter. But who cares anyway. The Notre Dame fans here are Notre Dame hockey fans first and foremost, so a childless dig at our football team won’t get much of a rise. Besides, if we ever sink so low as to play a 1AA team (something that only Notre Dame and 2 other 1A programs have NEVER done since the division separation in the 70s) I’m sure we would be happy to lay a healthy beatdown on your team.

          • Doug from Virginia

            You were right to label Go UNH’s comment as childish, but then you made one of your own. What on earth does it matter if a 1-A program plays a 1-AA team?? Did you ever consider that perhaps the Athletic Director of a 1-A team might want to help out a 1-AA program by scheduling a game with them?

        • Doug from Virginia

          @ Go UNH. UNH is my favorite NCAA hockey team, and I am a bit biased against Notre Dame, I must admit, but I also have to agree fully with “IrishHockeyFan”‘s comment below. Your comment was childish. It was nothing but a taunt, which is a tease with a nasty edge to it. Now you could have made a comment how UNH’s hockey program has won 20+ games for something like 14 of the past 15 years, which is a fact he cannot argue with, and which ND cannot match ….

      • Anonymous

        How many times have you seen a game go to overtime, have one team totally dominate for a stretch, and then the first chance for the other team ends up in the net. Is that fluky? Yes. Does it happen alot? Far more than you’d expect, but it doesn’t mean that the team that scores is less deserving of the win. It just means they capitalized on their chance. Can’t blame ND for that. And this is coming from a Hockey East fan.

  • Anonymous

    After that game last night, you won’t find a ha;f-dozen people who will root for Notre Dame now. Theirs was a most ‘fortunate’ win, we all agree. What else to conclude from a team whose mascot is a Leprechaun? I hope UNH throttles them tonight.

    • MoWanchuck

      Why? What did Notre Dame do wrong? There was a hockey game scheduled and they played it. Grow up.

    • hockey_lEast

      Notre Dame had the gall to beat an “eastern powerhouse”. Wonder if Notre Dame fans would react the same way to a lose. Merrimack got a break by playing Saturday as their first game. They lasted a day longer than BC.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TYV7WFWA7PV2Y3XHWTGUYUZ7WY Steve Kendall

    The story was about Merrimack, not ND. This was not designed to be a game recap, in my opinion, but to be a side feature on one team.

    • Doug from Virginia

      In a way I was delighted by Weighart’s story, because I am a fan of Hockey East and am delighted that Merrimack finally has a chance to become a perennial contender, although I am a UNH fan first and a UMaine fan 2nd. But I would be irritated if I was a college hockey fan in general, because I think Weighart should have made it priamrily a story about the game. And I would really be fuming if I was a Notre Dame fan, because not once did he quote the ND coach or players or describe plays from their point of view.

      • Scott Weighart

        Hi Doug,
        Thanks for your thoughtful reply to my story. For what it’s worth, I think Steve Kendall saw the story the way that I intended it to be seen. My job was to write a feature story for the game. Knowning that our other writer would pen a recap that would cover Notre Dame’s impressive rally, I thought it would be more interesting to take the angle of how far Merrimack has come as a different slant. In an ideal world, we probably would have had features on each team, I suppose, and maybe some would’ve preferred a feature that went into more depth than the recap on both teams. Always a judgement call.

        I sure wouldn’t be fuming if I were a Notre Dame fan! They showed great character in coming back after a pretty listless first 30 minutes of the game, and I really can’t say I was pulling for one team or the other.

        Thanks again for writing… especially in a resonable, non-ranting way!

        • Doug from Virginia

          And thanks for the compliment, Steve W. I have now read Lindquist’s story, which was a recap. And I sure do hope that no more games from here out are determined by a tie-breaking goal on a fluke. That makes it a very bitter pill for the losing team. By the way, have you seen the replay of the hit by Yale’s O’Neill that resulted in a 5-minute misconduct and an automatic game misconduct? I have yet to see a slow-motion replay. I thought O’Neill definitely hit him in the chest first, and definitely that O’Neill had his head up, not leading with his head which had been happening lots of times by NFL defenders before the league cracked down, but I could NOT tell whether the two heads made contact. They may have. Your thoughts? It was a crucial call which I believe led to 2 Minn.-Duluth power play goals and in my opinion determined the outcome of the game. Barry Melrose opined that it was a bad call, but he loves heavy hitting. The other call which I had a problem with was the goalie interference call against Boston College when they were trailing 4-2, when the replay clearly showed that the BC player had been knocked into the goalie by a Colo. College defender (which would have/should have been an intereference penalty on CC instead!). CC immediately scored on the power play and the rout was on. Can the officials refer to instant replay for penalty calls? If they had, they would have clearly seen what had happened and corrected the call. CC probably would have won anyway, as they clearly outskated and outplayed BC. I think the USCHO/NCAA ought to review making some fine tuning to the head-to-head automatic game misconduct penalty (there is no way that O’Neill’s hit was dirty, and the UMD player was fine within a minute, and never missed a shift afterwards, I think). Allow the player called to remain in the game if he makes contact with some other part of the body first, for instance.

          • Scott Weighart

            Thanks for your note. No, I did not see the O’Neill hit, but the consensus was that it was a questionable call at best–maybe a two-minute penalty would’ve been about right. I do think that the refs should have a few more options with calls: For example, a five-minute major is an automatic game misconduct, but I think refs should have the option to NOT give the game misconduct as well. This would make more sense for those hitting from behind calls that have to be called but that don’t seem to be malicious.

            The call against BC was a bad one, too. Sometimes the ref only sees the player running into the goalie and doesn’t see what led to it; I think that’s what happened there. In general, though, I’m glad that goalies are more protected than they once were: In the late 1990s, it seemed that any guy on a breakaway had free rein to just barrel over the goalie without anything called.

            Unfortunately, USCHO has no say about any of these rules! We can’t review anything–just comment on rules that should be created or altered.

  • Qrsdogg

    I recall going to Merrimack games the year they only won 3 games. I never imagined they’d be in the NCAA tournament four years later

  • Hockeyfan

    Rather be lucky and IN the tournament, than good and OUT of the tournament :)

  • hockey_lEast

    Yale gone, Merrimack gone, BC long gone. Enough with the excuses. Pity the poor CCHA and WCHA teams that have to play under refs that won’t allow as much hitting as a woman’s game. Anyone that saw the DU/WMU game should shake their heads in disbelief that 3 interference calls were made, in the first ten minutes, on clean checks immediately after the player played the puck. The refs want to call penalties no matter what. At least they were abysmal both ways.

  • Anonymous

    DaCosta won’t be back. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him signed by noon monday.

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