Those amazing Merrimack Warriors

Can we agree on this much?  It’s time for drug testing the Hockey East coaches if they don’t unanimously select Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy as their Coach of the Year.

If you’ve been paying any attention at all, you know the score.  The year before Dennehy arrived on campus, the Warriors finished 1-21-1 in Hockey East.  Fans would train their eyes toward North Andover, shake their heads, and wonder aloud when Merrimack would face the uncomfortable truth that it couldn’t make it in Division I and certainly not in Hockey East.  Go back to Division II where you belong, they would say, and let us get a good team in to replace you.

You think anyone is saying that now?  Saying that to the third-place, three-points-out-of-first Warriors?  Saying that to the tied-for-fourth-in-the-Pairwise Warriors?

Of course not.

There wasn’t a blast of instant gratification when Dennehy arrived.  The progress was slow but steady: 3-19-5, 3-22-2, 6-18-3, 5-19-3, and then last year’s breakthrough to 12-13-2.

This season the Warriors stand 13-5-3 inside the league and 19-5-4 overall. Where last year people rightly pointed to the team’s dominance at home, this year it has excelled at home (10-2-1) and on the road 9-3-3. 

The Warriors have won their season series with Boston College and New Hampshire and Boston University.  They’ve have won 12-of-13 contests since the break and their last six.

Last Saturday’s overtime thriller against New Hampshire spoke volumes of this team’s play.  After defeating New Hampshire in its own barn on Friday night, the Warriors grabbed a 2-0 lead back at home only to be hit with an avalanche of penalties following a tussle near the end of the second period. 

The end result: a five minute major and two extra minor penalties.  It all translated into four minutes of five-on-three shorthanded play with the final minute of the major tacked onto that. Predictably, the Wildcats tied the game, 2-2, using those manpower advantages.

But the Warriors didn’t crumble, didn’t feel sorry for themselves and settle for either a tie or a mere split on the weekend.  They came back and won it in overtime.

Oh and by the way, Stephane Da Costa, their top scorer, was sidelined the entire game due to injury.

This isn’t a team that takes the easy way out.

“Our mantra is don’t make excuses and don’t let other people make excuses for you,” Dennehy said after the game. “If you want to ask anyone how good those players are, ask Stephane Da Costa. He knows how good his teammates are.”

UNH players and coach Dick Umile gave appropriate credit to the Warriors’ defensive tenacity, a big reason for the team’s success. 

“Give credit to Merrimack,’ Umile said. ‘We had a miserable weekend getting pucks to the net. Half of our shots didn’t get to the net.”

Of New Hampshire’s attempted 80 shots, Merrimack blocked 23 of them, and had a part in forcing another 17 wide.

“That’s what good teams do, they block shots,” defenseman Jordan Heywood said after the game.  Heywood made the headlines for scoring the game-winner but even as a freshman knows the winning plays are often made outside of the limelight.  “You see [defensive partner Adam] Ross probably blocks 10 shots a game.

“As my partner, that just inspires me to go out and block shots as well.  It just kind of trickles down to everyone.  If you see one guy doing it it just has the ripple effect.

“The teams that go far do the little things, and blocking shots is one of those little things.”

If Da Costa’s injury proves serious that will be a major blow but those who have assumed (without seeing the team play) that this is a one-man team or even a one-man-plus-goalie team could not be more mistaken.

The Warriors are solid up and down their lineup.  They will be heard from.

With New Hampshire and Boston College only three points ahead and set to clash in the final weekend of the season, it’s conceivable that Merrimack could win the regular season title.  Or the Hockey East tournament. With strong play down the stretch the Warriors could become a number one seed in some NCAA regional.

But they’ve got their heads screwed on right about all that too.

“If I said it wasn’t in the back of our minds I’d be lying,” Heywood said.  “[But] we just want to focus on taking it game by game. If you start looking too far ahead, start looking to the NCAA tournament, that’s when it catches up to you and you slip up and lose a big game and you’re just going to plummet. 

“Our goal all year has been the Hockey East championship.  Right now we’re just focusing on winning the games that put us in the place to go there and to compete for that.

“If we win games and we do well competing for [the title] then that’s going to give us a good opportunity for the NCAA tournament.”

From a one-win season in Hockey East to a potential number-one seed in an NCAA regional.

Simply amazing.  And absolutely no fluke.