Merrimack ‘just focused on getting better’ under first-year coach Borek

 (Tim Brule)
Merrimack celebrates a recent goal against Boston College during an intense Hockey East matchup (photo: Melissa Wade).

Most fans’ eyes naturally gravitate to the top of the standings.

Who is going to win the regular-season title? Who’ll get home ice in the playoffs?

This year, however, there may be almost as much attention paid to the six, seven, and eight positions in the standings. After allowing every team a playoff berth the last few years, Hockey East has reverted to its old policy of allowing only the top eight teams in.

Which means three squads are going to be left out in the cold.

One of the teams in the thick of the fight for the last of those berths has been putting the pedal to the metal of late.

Merrimack has won its last three games (two of them league contests) to position themselves in a tie (sort of) with Maine for eighth place, one point behind seventh-place New Hampshire. The “sort of” disclaimer comes because Merrimack is giving away three games in hand to Maine and two to UNH.

“I haven’t even looked at the standings,” first-year Merrimack coach Scott Borek says. “I couldn’t even tell you where we are.

“I knew back at the beginning of the year that we’d be in the group fighting for a spot. We have a great senior class, and they deserve it. I’d like to see them get it.

“But we’re just focused on getting better. We’re literally paying zero attention to the standings. We’re getting better and just have to push in that direction.”

That push has seen the Warriors topple second-place Northeastern in its barn, 1-0, knock off Michigan 4-2, also on the road, and defeat Connecticut, a key competitor for the final playoff spots, 5-2.

That’s a heckuva push.

“We have defended really, really hard and been getting good goaltending,” Borek says. “Those two go hand in hand. I think of goaltending as a six-person position.

“And our work ethic has been exceptional the last three games.”

Freshman Chase Gresock has also been exceptional. The team’s second-leading scorer, he scored in each of the three wins and collected two assists against Michigan and one against UConn. For his efforts, he earned Hockey East Player of the Week honors.

“The best thing about Chase as a player is that he spends a lot of time between the dots,” Borek says. “He puts himself in position to make plays. He’s heavy over the puck, and he has success because of that.

“He hits the net with 80 percent of his shots, so he gives himself a chance to score. He plays both ends of the ice.

“He’s going to be a heckuva player in Hockey East.”

The Warriors had several high points early in the season–shutting out Boston University 4-0 and defeating Boston College 2-1 — but hit the skids shortly thereafter, going 1-10-1, culminating in a potentially costly 2-1 overtime loss to UNH to kick off the new year.

Through that tough stretch, however, Borek maintained an optimistic outlook.

“One thing that encouraged us was our leadership,” he says. “Our captains, the three seniors and junior Johnathan Kovacevic, were looking forward. They had the team focusing on getting better each day.

“The effort was there despite the lack of success. The leadership kept us going.”

Arguably, the schedule had also been working against the Warriors. To date, Merrimack has played one of the toughest, if not the toughest, league schedules to date. They’ve played first-place Massachusetts twice, second-place Northeastern three times, third-place BC twice, and Providence three times. All of that will even out when the Warriors face a preponderance of bottom-half teams down the stretch, the same teams they’ll need to shoulder aside for one of the final playoff berths.

To do that, they’ll almost certainly need continued improvement on special teams. Although the statistics have been distorted by all their matchups against top teams, the numbers aren’t pretty. In league play, the Warriors power play has converted only 10.7 percent of the time and the penalty kill has succeeded only 76.1 percent. That gives a special-teams net of minus-14, far and away worst in the league. Exacerbating that situation, Merrimack’s 17.2 penalty minutes per game trail only Maine’s 18.2.

“We’re a much better team five-on-five, but our statistics are improving on the PK,” Borek says. “We’re improving a lot on the PK.

“And as our offense is gaining confidence, that’s going to improve the power play. Both groups are improving.”

The next test for those units comes in Friday’s pivotal contest with UNH. Given the two teams’ positions in the standings, it’s a four-point contest.

“They have really good sticks offensively,” Borek says. “They’re very opportunistic. That’s how they beat us the first time.

“They are a very different team from us. They need two chances to score where we need five. We’re just going to have to be more physical than them, out-defend them, and outwork them.”