When Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy looked at the schedule at the beginning of the year, his team’s three consecutive mid-January games against Maine stood out as potential playoff-caliber contests. After all, the two schools had faced each other in back-to-back Hockey East fourth-seed-vs.-fifth-seed quarterfinal series and although both had suffered significant losses to attrition, they projected to again be neck-and-neck in the standings.
So even though Maine has plummeted to last place while Merrimack has kept chugging along in fifth, exactly where the Warriors finished last year, Dennehy still viewed the just-completed, three-game stretch to be playoff-style hockey.
The results put smiles on the faces of every Merrimack supporter. At home two weeks ago, the Warriors smoked Maine 6-0; last weekend, they took three of four points at Alfond.
“For us, there were a lot of positives,” Dennehy said. “We scored when we needed to and defended well. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t nine periods of 1980s Edmonton Oilers hockey, but we defended well, we competed, and we were resilient — things you have to do in the playoffs in order to have success.
“What you try to do in the regular season is obviously make the playoffs and get yourself in as good a position as possible, but [also] have sort of a playoff-type environment in the middle of your season so it’s a good test for your team.”
The Warriors certainly passed that test.
Scoring an A+ was goaltender Sam Marotta, who stopped 53 of 56 Black Bears shots last weekend to go with another 30 saves in his shutout at home. That’s a .965 save percentage in the three-game set.
In the preseason, Dennehy expressed confidence in the ability of Marotta and Rasmus Tirronen to replace Joe Cannata. I had my doubts. Was Dennehy really that sure he could replace Hockey East’s top goaltender? Or was he whistling past the graveyard?
Turns out that confidence was well-founded. Marotta ranks second to only New Hampshire’s Casey DeSmith in both goals against average (2.09) and save percentage (.927). Tirronen (2.58, .905) has performed none too shabbily either.
“Both of them had to scrape off some rust early on in the season but I’m really happy with both of their progress,” Dennehy said. “Sam of late has really taken a step [forward] and is playing with a lot of confidence, seeing the puck well.
“Just watching them every day in practice last year and seeing how hard, in particular, Sam worked made us pretty confident coming into this season that it was going to be an area of strength for us.
“Our guys have really bought into playing hard in front of them. Sam and Raz would be the first ones to tell you that how hard their teammates play has a lot to do with their success. But they’re making those first saves, eliminating rebounds and making good decisions with the puck, whether to take whistles or keep it moving.”
At the other end of the ice, Mike Collins has proven that he deserves to be ranked among the league’s top forwards. He ranks second in Hockey East scoring (11 goals and 16 assists overall) and has shown remarkable consistency, recording points in all but three league games.
“I’ll go all the way back to his freshman year when we were looking for someone to play with Stephane [Da Costa],” Dennehy said. “It would have been easy for us to put [No. 2 scorer] Chris Barton with him but we really wanted to try to create some balance. We waited half a season just because we didn’t want to hand it to any freshman but Mike was a guy we identified early on as someone who was smart enough to play with some of our best players.”
Collins recorded 14 goals and 16 assists and made the league all-rookie team.
“As gifted as he is with the puck and as great vision as he has, his hockey IQ is off the charts,” Dennehy said. “What he’s done for us this year is be consistent. He’s been there every night.
“Even though he has put up numbers — and he’s helped us on that front immensely — he still has an impact on the game even if he’s not scoring. He’s on the penalty kill now; this is the first year he’s done that consistently. He’s out there four-on-four.
“He understands how we want to play. He’s helped us coach some of the younger guys. He’s been a leader for us. I can’t say enough about what he’s been able to do this year.”
The position of Collins and Marotta near the top of Hockey East’s stat sheets notwithstanding, Merrimack’s success has very much been a collective effort. The Warriors appear to be a team without a major weakness. They rank fourth in the league in team offense, second in defense, second on the power play and third on the penalty kill.
“I think we’re kind of flying under the radar right now, which is fine with us,” Dennehy said. “We’re a blue-collar team, and we get a lot out of hard work and effort.
“With the exception of Mike Collins and maybe Jordan Heywood — who I think is really respected around the league — a lot of our guys do fly under the radar. We expect production out of everybody at different times.
“As a matter of fact, one of the things that kind of jumps out for people that are looking at us consistently is how much production we get out of our defensemen. There’s only one defenseman that doesn’t have at least nine points — Thomas McCarthy, who has five. If you look at last weekend’s goals, we scored four goals and three of them were by defensemen.
“In order to score in these games five-on-five, everybody on the ice needs to be trying to do it because it’s so hard, the goalies are so good. So, whether it’s our fourth-line center or sixth defensemen, we want them to want the puck and try to get involved.”
Arguably, there’s only one cloud on the Merrimack horizon, but it’s a major thunderhead. Tough doesn’t begin to describe the Warriors’ schedule down the stretch. Brutal is more like it.
All but four games are against nationally ranked opponents. The Warriors play two against third-ranked Boston College, three against fourth-ranked New Hampshire, one against 11th-ranked Boston University and three against 15th-ranked Massachusetts-Lowell. Oh, and one of those four “easier” games comes against Providence, which is fourth in Hockey East and also receiving votes in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll. Merrimack holds an edge on paper only in its three games against Massachusetts.
“We can’t stop other teams from being good so it’s just important to make sure we’re good as well,” Dennehy said, quoting words he heard during his days at UMass with Don “Toot” Cahoon. “If we play hard and we play with intelligence, we’re really confident that on any given night we can beat anybody.
“Take it one game at a time and you’ll win your share of games. This is a tough league from top to bottom. There are no nights off. We may be coming up against what we statistically know is the iron, but there’s a lot yet to be sorted out in terms of where everybody’s going to fall in this league.”
UMass and the tight race for a playoff berth
Although Massachusetts remains neck-and-neck with Northeastern and Vermont for the final two playoff spots, the Minutemen have emerged from the holiday break playing considerably improved hockey. [See the Hockey East standings here.]
They opened the second half with wins over Bemidji State and 12th-ranked Dartmouth to capture the Ledyard Classic. Then last weekend, they stunned Boston College in its own barn 5-2.
Yes, in between they did get swept by Providence 5-4 and 2-0. But in the first game they outshot PC 12-5 in the third period to no avail and in the second they poured 44 shots on goal only to be shut out by Jon Gillies. UMass isn’t the first and won’t be the last team to be frustrated by the freshman phenom.
The win over BC was telling. Early in the season, the Minutemen similarly held an early lead over the Eagles but collapsed in the third period as if they expected to lose. Last Friday, however, the Minutemen pulled off a surprising role reversal, scoring three goals in the third to secure the win over one of the nation’s top teams.
The Minutemen appear to be maturing as a team and at just the right time.
“It’s just that we believe,” co-captain Kevin Czepiel said. “That Dartmouth tournament was a big turning point for us.
“We have a group of guys that believe in one another and we’re ready to do special things this year. Coach Mick [John Micheletto] has been just amazing. He’s focused on the process and that’s what we’ve done all year. We’re starting to see the dividends of that.”
Micheletto is delighted with the win but continues to preach the highs-not-too-highs and lows-not-too-lows message.
“It’s too long a season to allow yourself to have those sorts of emotional swings and think you’re going to be a consistent competitive team in this league,” he said. “It’s two valuable, valuable points in an increasingly tough middle section of the standings. We’re going to take those two points and relish the victory for sure.
“But we’ve got to get back to work because we have two tough games up at Burlington, Vt., next weekend.”
In addition to the momentum, which can always be short-lived, the Minutemen also will be heading to Vermont with penalty killers that are both effective and aggressive. They had to kill the first four penalties of the game against BC’s potent attack and not only accomplished that task but added a short-handed goal. They’ve gotten the job done on 18 of the 20 penalties incurred since the break and rank fourth in the league in PK percentage (85.5 percent).
“It’s been a real key for us this year,” Micheletto said. “If we can disrupt the other team’s power-play breakouts, get our penalty-kill forecheckers up ice and make sure every time we get a puck on our forehand in our defensive zone that we clear 200 feet, that’s about as good a penalty kill as you can have.
“You let good teams set up in zone and you box it up and you allow them to play power play for 40 seconds, it’s not going to be very successful. Our guys have bought into that fact. We try to keep teams on the run as much as possible and really make a commitment to go 200 feet.”
UMass still could wind up on the wrong end of the playoff stick. Or it could race up the standings like Massachusetts-Lowell has done. The Minutemen are only a point ahead of Northeastern and Vermont (and five points ahead of Maine) in the race for the final two berths. UMass holds a game in hand over the Huskies and Catamounts but can do itself a huge favor with a big weekend in Vermont.
For now, though, the Minutemen are striving to focus on the process, not the standings or how their closest competitors are doing.
“We’ve done it before where we’ve watched the standings and we were nervous about who is going to do what,” Czepiel said. “We just have to control our own destiny. I think this team is going to do really great things.”
BC for the defense
Boston College has finished as Hockey East’s top defensive club the past three years. It’s no coincidence that the Eagles won the league title each of those years and a national championship in two of them (2010 and 2012).
That reign, at least as top defensive club, appears about to end. And with it, perhaps their Hockey East and NCAA titles. Certainly, the odds of the Eagles winning a fourth national championship in six years will deteriorate without stronger defensive play.
After allowing an average of only 2.26, 2.15, and 2.22 goals against the past three seasons, the Eagles have allowed 2.50 goals per game this season in league contests and 2.71 overall. Those numbers rank third and fifth in Hockey East, respectively. By contrast, New Hampshire has allowed an average of only 1.86 goals per league game.
BC’s numbers are hardly disastrous and that overall number is inflated by the 8-1 trouncing at Minnesota right after the holidays.
But that’s not the BC level of defense we’ve come to expect. It’s likely not championship-level defense, either.
Granted, the Eagles have played three freshmen defensemen all year, with that number growing to four following senior Patch Alber’s knee injury. In their loss to UMass on Friday, forward Brooks Dyroff moved back to the blue line to provide freshman Colin Sullivan the one-game perspective of a view from above the ice.
So inexperience and injuries have taken their toll. Alber could return for the playoffs and the freshmen should be more battle-tested by that time as well. So the blue line should improve, potentially by a good amount if Alber makes it back.
But the un-Eagle-like defense goes beyond the blue line. Parker Milner could play better in goal and the forwards could improve their defensive game as well.
“Collectively as a group, we’re not playing team defense,” BC associate head coach Mike Cavanaugh said after the loss to UMass. “That doesn’t just mean your goaltender and your defense. It’s your forwards as well.
“One of our trademarks has always been that our forwards come back so hard it’s hard for teams to get odd-man rushes against us, but right now, we’re putting our defense in some tough positions.”
All that said, am I betting against the Eagles fixing those problems?
What do you think I am, nuts?
Jerry York update
Boston College will hold Jerry York Night on Feb. 8 to honor him for becoming the winningest coach in college hockey.
He continues to recover from surgery for a detached retina. The recuperation process includes lying face down for 18-19 hours a day. According to Cavanaugh, “He’s listening to a lot of books on tape.”
Best wishes to York, one of college hockey’s finest.