Providence, Merrimack take different roads to undefeated starts

Mark Jankowski leads Providence with seven points through three games (photo: Jim Rosvold).

Four Hockey East teams remain among the ranks of the undefeated. Two qualify as “usual suspects:” defending national champion Providence and Massachusetts-Lowell. The other two, however, rank as major surprises: Merrimack and Massachusetts, the two teams picked to finish last and next-to-last in the coaches’ preseason poll.

Last week’s column discussed UMass’s opening performances. This one will focus on Providence and Merrimack.

Providence: No title hangover

Anyone expecting Providence to stumble out of the gate like the proverbial drunken sailor was proven wrong a week ago when the Friars traveled to Miami for a difficult two-game set. They emerged with a win and a tie. Last weekend, they didn’t allow the championship banner raising to distract them, defeating Holy Cross 4-1.

It was a decided improvement over a year ago, when the Friars opened 2-2-2, albeit with five of the games on the road and four against the two teams they’d eventually join in the Frozen Four, North Dakota and Boston University.

“We learned a big lesson going out to North Dakota last year,” Friars coach Nate Leaman says. “What they did to us the first night — [a 6-1 thumping] — was a really good lesson. They were so ready for that series and we weren’t. Our mindset wasn’t where it needed to be for that series, for how intense that series was going to be.

“We actually spoke about it this summer with the team because we knew we were opening up with Miami. We knew that it was going to be a hard series and they were going to give us their best shot. I think we were much more ready for it this year.”

Scheduling tough nonconference opponents is part of Leaman’s plan even though it almost resulted in disaster last year.

“These opening [nonconference] weekends are really important in the national picture down the road,” he says. “We learned that last year where we were the last team in the tournament even though we thought we had a great team.

“[But despite the risks], we’re a program that wants to test ourselves. We want to play against top teams. That’s how we know we’re going to get better.

“[At the same time], you can’t get too caught up in the results at the beginning of the year because you’re just trying to learn more about yourself and you don’t know where some of these other teams are going to be at at the end of the year.”

Upperclassmen who have last year’s national championship experience under their belts have led the way. Seniors Mark Jankowski and Trevor Mingoia lead the scoring, with Brandon Tanev and Nick Saracino not far behind, giving that class four of the top five scorers.

And their contributions have gone beyond the box scores. They’ve reinforced Leaman’s message that the past is a wonderful past, but it’s the past.

“I’m really happy with our upperclassmen and our captains,” Leaman says. “The leadership of the team has had everyone ready to start play.

“This past weekend was tough because they raised the banner and there was so much going on on campus with all the emotions for last year. There were a lot of distractions in terms of being focused on 2015-16. But [we won], that’s behind us now and now we’re able to move forward.”

While the Friars no longer have all-everything goaltender Jon Gillies, Nick Ellis is faring well in his stead (1.95 GAA, .929 save percentage), and the defense in front of him is playing very well.

Not just in the defensive zone. Defensemen Jake Walman, John Gilmour, Tom Parisi and Anthony Florentino rank as four of the team’s top eight scorers. That’s no October fluke, either. All four cracked double-digits in scoring last season.

“That’s one of the strengths of our team this year,” Leaman says. “All those guys have a good offensive upside to their game and we’re trying to get them more involved.

“It’s tough to score goals at this level, so it’s very important to get your D involved. Those three or four guys have the potential to chip in quite a bit offensively.”

Maybe the Friars are closer to a repeat than people like yours truly originally thought.

Merrimack surprising

Brett Seney and Merrimack are off to a good start in 2015-16 (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

At the other end of the spectrum in terms of expectations is Merrimack. The Warriors finished next-to-last last year and were pegged to do the same again this time around.

Instead, they knocked off well-regarded Clarkson and St. Lawrence and not by the hair of their chinny-chin-chins. They walloped the North Country tandem by a cumulative 10-2.

And no, there were no empty-net goals fattening up that differential.

And no, those two opponents aren’t having off years. The two of them swept a New Hampshire team expected to be a significant player in Hockey East and maybe on the national stage this season.

Merrimack simply played like the exact opposite of a team pegged for 11th place.

“I don’t put a lot of stock in preseason polls,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy says. “Based on how our recruiting ranks every year, we shouldn’t win very many games at all.

“But we have guys that come in and end up doing some great things. You never heard about Brett Seney until he started the season with us last year.”

Point taken. Seney finished with 26 points, and although it was a guy named Jack Eichel who took everyone’s breath away, Seney opened a lot of eyes.

As did Merrimack last weekend.

“I wouldn’t say this start is unexpected for us,” Dennehy says. “I will say it’s early.”

Like the unbeaten Friars, the Warriors are getting strong contributions from their seniors. Four of them — Brian Christie, Ben Bahe, Justin Hussar and defenseman Matt Cronin — sit atop the team’s scoring list.

Although this is predominantly a young team with 19 underclassmen, the progression of the veterans is by design, according to Dennehy.

“You want your returning players to improve,” he says. “We feel we’ve got the infrastructure set up here so that they can come back and train. With the type of development model that we’ve set up, they’re getting better every year.

“It’s great to see guys like Christie and Benny Bahe do what they’re doing. I look at Aaron Titcomb, who’s a sophomore defenseman who’s really gotten off to a good start. I look at Chris LeBlanc, who’s less than two years removed from a serious leg injury. He’s really got off to a good start for us.

“It has a lot to do with their hard work. As excited as we are about the young guys, you’re only going to go as far as your older guys take you.”

As Dennehy noted, Titcomb has taken a major step forward. He had only a single assist in 26 games last year, but has already accumulated three.

“We had four freshman defensemen last year,” Dennehy says. “Three of whom played the majority of the games and I would say that out of the three that played the majority of the games, he probably got off to the slowest start. But by the end of the year, he was one of our better defensemen.

“What happened is he took that confidence into the summer and trained his tail off. He came back even bigger and stronger and faster. You like to see guys like that rewarded.”

Without a doubt, though, the biggest eye-opener has been sophomore Collin Delia in goal. A year ago, senior Rasmus Tirronen dominated between the Warriors pipes, limiting Delia to only nine games.

But Dennehy knew what he had in the returning sophomore and professed total confidence in him filling Tirronen’s shoes before the season started. He’s been proven correct, at least so far. Playing against two very strong teams, Delia recorded a 1.03 GAA and an astounding .962 save percentage.

“It’s a small sample size, but we’re looking at a much larger sample size because we see him every day in practice,” Dennehy says. “I thought in all honesty that over the last 18 months of his career Raz was the second-best goalie in our league, second only to Jon Gillies. That’s who Colin was playing behind. When he got his chance, he did a lot with it.

“We do have a high level of confidence in Colin. We saw him in practice all year last year; we’ve seen him all this year. The general public has only gotten three viewings, but it doesn’t surprise us what he’s doing.

“But he’d be the first one to tell you that our defensemen and our forwards are doing a good job of letting him see pucks. They’re either blocking them or they’re letting him see them.

“But it’s still early. We’ve got 32 games guaranteed games left. There’s a lot of water yet to be under the bridge.”

Merrimack’s strong start in nonconference play will be tested mightily this weekend in league action against also-undefeated Lowell.

“Listen, what [Lowell coach] Norm Bazin has been able to do over the last four years is nothing short of amazing,” Dennehy says. “You don’t hear about his highly touted recruiting classes, yet he and his staff manage to find excellent hockey players. He does such a good job of getting them to play the way they need to play to be successful.

“They’re as tough a team as there is to play in college hockey. I look at the metrics and you look at the shot attempts, for and against, even strength and when the game’s close, they dominate those areas.

“So we’re going to have to bring our A game. Posture and inside ice is crucial when you’re playing them. Being prepared to take shots is important because they limit them so well.

“One of the most underrated parts of Lowell’s team is how good they are on the rush. Because of the way they cover the defensive zone, they get a lot of transition from their defensive zone coverage. If you’re not prepared for that and you don’t do a good job of staying above the puck and playing the rush, they can light you up. I look at their depth. They get scoring from everybody.

“They’re a team that’s going to compete for the Hockey East championship. If we want to be considered part of that, then we’re going to have to play well this weekend.”

So much for ‘SportsCenter’

I thought I caught a Hockey East player making ESPN’s “SportsCenter” top 10 plays over the weekend and quickly set the recorder so I could make reference to it here.

Sure enough, there at No. 5 was a Northeastern Huskies player scoring a sweet goal, cutting from left to right to avoid a defender before roofing a backhander into the top of the net.


Except …

It wasn’t Northeastern men’s hockey. It was Kendall Coyne from the women’s team.

Of course, since we’re all Patriots fans here and ESPN is now a four-letter word, I’m duty bound to point out that the “SportsCenter” anchor then made reference to Northwestern.

Oh well, congrats to Kendall Coyne for a terrific goal and some well-earned recognition.