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This Week in Hockey East

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Upon further review, schedule hasn’t slowed Merrimack’s surge to third place

So much for that idea of Merrimack sinking under the weight of a brutal stretch-run schedule.

A couple weeks ago, I described the thunderhead on the Warriors’ horizon: one nationally ranked foe after another. I didn’t come right out and say it, but I thought they’d mostly take their lumps and finish in sixth place, an admirable team that had coped quite well with their big losses to attrition from a year ago.

Sixth place? Cope? Admirable?

Not exactly.

Many initially gave them little credit for taking five of six points from Maine. The Black Bears, after all, were in last place. They stunk. Five-of-six? Big deal.

Then Maine swept Boston College at home (after which it tied Providence and beat Massachusetts-Lowell) and proved that it very much didn’t stink and five of six had been a big deal.

And what about the iron the Warriors faced after Maine? They took four of six points from fourth-ranked New Hampshire and ended Lowell’s 11-game undefeated streak.

Merrimack stands only three points out of first place with a game in hand. Could the Warriors soon be only a point out of first place?

Who’s that buffoon who was tossing out words like “sixth place,” “cope,” and “admirable”?

Predictably, Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy isn’t getting carried away with emotion. He’s keeping the even keel that coaches need at this time.

“Listen, we played pretty well this weekend and we did some good things but we very easily could have lost both of those games,” he says. “That’s just the nature of hockey. We can’t get confused by results.

“We were ready to play both of those games. We put ourselves in a position to win both of those games. It just so happened that we did win them. You can take some positives from the results but don’t get blinded by them as well.”

When asked if his team is showing more confidence, Dennehy responds in lukewarm fashion.

“There’s been a level of confidence in that room for a while just based on execution,” he says, then refers to a book by Mike Babcock about his experience at the Olympics. “Preparedness can lead to execution and execution leads to confidence. Because when you execute, you become more confident. I think that’s the case.”

The Merrimack fans appear to be warming to the cause.

“There is definitely excitement on campus,” Dennehy says. “At the beginning of the year we didn’t have a lot of league play. With all the construction going on, it was easy to say, ‘Ahhh, maybe I’ll listen to this one on the radio or do something else.’

“[But] the weather’s been kind, we’ve had some really good opponents and our students are back from break. Our students have been great, and our administration has really honed in on that environment.

“Success, even over a short period of time, can really have an effect on most fan bases. I think we’ve gotten a little bit of a bump over our last couple of games and hopefully that continues.”

The Warriors’ strength in the defensive zone as well and the offensive exploits of their defensemen have emerged as keys to success. They rank second in Hockey East in team defense, yet of the 10 Warriors players with double-digit points, four are blueliners. Usually, one figures that defensemen jumping into the play do so at the risk of giving up counterattacks.

Not so for Merrimack.

“You’re either all in or you’re all out,” Dennehy says. “I don’t feel like any of the five forward skaters on the ice can be one or the other. You all have to play defense when the other team has the puck, and then you all have to play offense when you have it.

“Offense is the reward. The only reason why you really play defense is to get the puck back. But if you’re not all buying in, then you’re not going to have the puck as much as you’d like.

“Defense is … you want the puck. That’s what, at the end of the day, you’re working toward. But teams aren’t going to give it to you. You’re going to have to work to get it back and our guys have bought into that.”

Remarkably, the Warriors are sitting in third place, potentially a point within first, despite a tiny senior class.

It may be the winningest in school history, but it’s tiny. Only Kyle Bigos and John Heffernan regularly dress among the seniors; Brandon Brodhag has appeared in seven games and third-string goaltender Nick Drew has yet to see action.

Which means that those who keep waiting for Merrimack as a program to falter are likely going to have a long wait.

“Players come and go, and coaches come and go,” Dennehy says. “What you hope to create is a culture. When we first got here seven-and-a-half years ago, as a staff we talked about building from the net out. That really hasn’t changed.

“Goal scoring comes and goes, no matter how good you are, and so if you’re not really focused on the defensive end and making sure you’re keeping the puck out of your goal, then when the goals go away, you’re not going to have an opportunity to win. So it’s really cultural.

“This is a blue-collar effort and it’s more about how we’re willing to play than it is about who’s playing.”

The BU Beanpot Era is over

Boston University’s long era of Beanpot dominance is over. Arguably, it could have been called over a year ago but now there can be no doubt. Monday’s loss was the final nail in the coffin.

It may resume at some point, of course. And while it lasted, it was stunning. The Terriers won seven times in the 1970s, hit a lull with only three in the ’80s but then took eight in the ’90s and then another eight in the first decade of this century.

Those are staggering numbers, ones that gave rise to Terriers fans calling the Beanpot the BU Invitational.

Not anymore.

Monday’s loss means that the BU’s senior class will be the first since 1965 to graduate without experiencing a Beanpot title. 1965! That’s the year before BU coach Jack Parker played in his first one.

That’s so far back that if I started to recite appropriate cultural references, half of this audience would have no idea what I was referring to.

An amazing run. No question about it.

But now, the Terriers seniors will not only be graduating without a Beanpot championship — all except Ryan Ruikka, who won one in 2009 and is still around because of a redshirt year — they’ll also be playing in their second consolation game in three years.

It would be premature for Boston College fans to start calling the tournament the BC Invitational but not by much. Barring an upset by Northeastern next Monday, BC seniors will graduate with an 8-0 Beanpot record. It’ll be the first such time in the illustrious history of the program. (The Eagles did take three straight from 1963 to 1965.)

With four straight titles — again, that comes with a very big if — and five in the last six years, the Boston College Eagles will have assumed the dominant role once owned by their archrivals.

It won’t yet be the BC Invitational. But it’ll be getting close.

As for the Terriers, the loss to the Huskies continues a disturbing string of bad play since the holiday break. They’re 1-4-1 in their last six, 3-6-1 since the break.

“We’re in a bad frame of mind, a bad stage of the season,” Parker said on Monday. “We’ve been up and down too much since we came back in January. This was another game where we were up and down over the course of the game.

“It was not a solid 60-minute effort by us by any stretch of the imagination. I think this team has lost its confidence a little bit.”

BU’s Beanpot dreams the last three years were dashed either in overtime or by a single goal in well-played games. (2010: BC 4, BU 3; 2011: BC 3, BU 2 (OT); 2012: BC 3, BU 2 (OT)) Not so this time, according to Parker.

“The last three years, we played extremely well and lost,” he said, comparing the games to coin flips that his team perhaps won more than its share of during its heyday but lost three straight going into Monday. “But this one was not a good one. I thought we were unfortunate in the last three but we weren’t unfortunate tonight. Northeastern was the better team.”

The Terriers have fallen to the bubble of the PairWise Rankings, a three-way tie for 12th. They’ll need to avoid the same consolation game letdown they experienced two years ago when a loss to Harvard helped keep BU out of the NCAA tournament despite finishing third in Hockey East.

The race for seventh and eighth

I raised some eyebrows three weeks ago on the Jan. 15 USCHO Live! show when I made my projections as to which teams would squeak into the playoffs as the seventh and eighth seeds and which two would be left out. I said that I thought Massachusetts and Maine would make it; Northeastern and Vermont would not.

The Maine pick, in particular, generated surprise. After all, at that point the Black Bears’ Hockey East record was a dismal 1-8-3. They were a fairly distant last place.

Now, those prescient comments are making me look like a genius, at least temporarily. (Pardon me while I dislocate my shoulder, patting myself on the back.)

I thought then, and still do, that Northeastern has the best chance of the remaining two teams to crack the top eight.

Sorry Catamounts fans, but I don’t like your team’s chances. As I’ve noted before, Vermont finishes the season with two games each against New Hampshire, Boston University and Boston College.

Additionally, while Maine and UMass have gone on tears of 3-0-1 and 3-1, respectively, Vermont has lost six of its last seven.

“We can’t look at anybody else right now,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon said after Friday’s 4-1 loss to BC. “We have to control our own destiny. If we start scoreboard watching, it’s pretty dangerous.

“This league is so tough top to bottom — as Boston College found out last weekend — anybody can beat anybody on any given night. We had opportunities to win the game. [BC is] an excellent team, but I thought our team played extremely well. So it’s certainly a disappointing result.

“But there are no pity parties this time of year. We just have to get ready for Maine next weekend.”

True, but it says here Vermont needs at least three, if not four, points out of its upcoming three games with Maine and Northeastern to make the playoffs.

USCHO covers Hockey East all week long on the Hockey East Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.

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  • bronxbomberz41

    I’m not sure what has gotten into Merrimack lately, because they are kind of on a tear (UNH, BU, and BC have all definitely disappointed in the second half). Yes, they smoked Maine, but i was at one of those games and Maine looked awful. They seem to match up really well with UNH, as they’ve only lost twice to them in like the last 10 or 11 meetings. But I get the impression when I watch them that they are a team that is more than willing to just beat you up. I’m not saying they aren’t talented/skilled/good. They have obviously showed that they are pretty good, but the last few years I always remember games against Merrimack being nasty. Kyle Bigos is the all time penalty minutes leader for Hockey East (heard on NESN last weekend) and given their style of play i’m not surprised at all.

    • Patrick

      Every shift, the program channels the battle Dennehy waged in turning program around to 23 games over .500 last 2 1/2 seasons from 61 games under in previous 5 years. Never considered them dirty, just what Brian Burke couldn’t make the Leafs, unpleasant to play against.

      • bronxbomberz41

        I didn’t mean to imply they play dirty…but it is always a rough draw. They aren’t afraid to take a penalty, and that might be as much because of who is between the pipes as anything else. They can easily beat teams up, especially UNH which tends to have a more finesse style of play.

        • Patrick

          Agreed, was just reinforcing your point that they are gritty and make you work

  • Patrick

    Remaining schedule involves following games between 4 teams battling for final 2 spots:

    Mass 3/10 A: (0) H: (3) NE, 2X Maine;
    Maine 5/9 A: (3) UVM, 2X Mass H: (2) 2X NE:
    UVM 3/9 A: (2) 2X NE H: (1) Maine
    NE 5/10 A: (3) Mass, 2X Maine H: (2) 2X UVM

    Analysing head on scheduling; combined with each team’s total # of games remaining; projected degree of difficulty in remaining games not against each other; multiplying by pi and dividing by the # of times Toot and Dennehy wear clashing ties; can definitively state haven’t a clue as to which two will qualify for playoffs. What is definitively true: 1. last time for foreseeable future that anyone in HE will have to earn post season berth, merit no longer meritorious; 2. top two HE seeds will likely have two of league’s hottest on their hands with 7 & 8. Luscious 5 weeks ahead and we’ve only talked bottom feeders. Dream season’s greetings to Joe Bertagna

  • Joseph Crowley

    Fourth place will soon be Boston University’s normal Beanpot landing place. Did we send the JV to play Harvard tonight? It certainly is painful watching the few games I can watch here in northern Virginia and watch BU look terrible each time.

    • Patrick

      Program is ready for new leadership… Parker has been legendary but time for a new culture… they’ve always had the most ‘pro’ style and identity but the hockey universe has inverted and college style now being played at NHL level

  • Joseph Crowley

    Northeastern can make it. They finish with two games against my Terriers. They might score ten goals that weekend.

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