In coach Mark Dennehy’s four years at Merrimack, the one thing that has been certain and consistent for his team has been its improvement.
After a six-win season in 2005-06 and a three-win campaign a year later, the Warriors posted 12 wins two seasons ago and another nine last year. The nine may not have been impressive but that the team was 4-4-1 over its final nine games certainly stands out.
The constant, though, among the consistent improvement has been a lack of visits to the postseason.
Merrimack hasn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2004. It hasn’t won a playoff game since 1998 (many remember the famous upset of Boston University in the opening round, the final year for coach Ron Anderson, right?)
It might be too much to expect that the Warriors are ready for another dramatic playoff upset and a trip to the Garden, but to believe this team might be ready to take the next step and become a playoff team isn’t out of the question.
“I really like our team’s mentality even though we haven’t played a game yet,” said Dennehy. “It started at the end of last season. Our team was pretty disappointed by the outcome of their season and they used that to springboard into a good spring, our guys did a real good job over the summer and the overall mentality this fall is very focused.”
Focus is one thing, but translating that to victories is another. To do that, the Warriors will need to score more than in seasons past and hope that the strong goaltending that the club got last year from freshman Joe Cannata translates into more victories.
Cannata, according to Dennehy, isn’t the lone soldier in net. Senior Andrew Braithwaite, who two seasons ago showed flashes of brilliance but struggled through much of last year’s campaign — albeit battling injuries — will certainly see his fair share of time in goal.
“I believe we have the best goaltending tandem in the league, if not the country,” said Dennehy. “Andrew Braithwaite was hurt for a large portion of last year but he ended his sophomore year as one of the best goaltenders in the league. Then add Cannata in the mix, he played the bulk of the games down the stretch [when the team went 4-4-1], so it really starts in the net.”
Though Dennehy can be confident in net, his biggest question is scoring more goals. Only three players reached the 20-point plateau and the two who return — junior Chris Barton and sophomore Jesse Todd — will be among those looked to for increased production.
Even a slight increase in offense could make a major different for Merrimack. A year ago, the Warriors were 3-14 in one-goal games. Changing half of those losses to wins — which really comes down to a minor tipping point — would turn a 9-21-4 record into a 16-14-4 campaign. Talk about a difference.
Dennehy doesn’t want to talk too much about that, though. Unless, of course, that experience makes his team better.
“You don’t want to look back. If I hear how many one-goal games we lost … and how do you turn those one goal games into wins,” said Dennehy. “It’s impossible because those one-goal games are in the history books. We need to remember what it took to be a part of those one-goal games and then the experience of having been in them is enough to propel you into having some success.”