Tonight at J. Thom Lawler Arena, the no. 19 Merrimack Warriors take on the no. 4 Boston College Eagles in a battle for sole possession of first place in the Hockey East standings. After a lackluster 6-7-3 first half, including a 4-4-3 record in Hockey East, Merrimack sat in just 6th place heading into the Christmas break. The first half let down could be summed up in one game – a 4-3 loss at Boston College on November 16th.
That Friday night, the Warriors jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead in the second period on the then no.1 ranked Eagles after a scoreless first. All three Warrior goals came in a 4:36 span. Understandably excited, the young Merrimack squad seemingly lost focus following those dominant four and a half minutes.
“It was like the first two rows at a Justin Bieber concert,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy.
“The giddiness of our team being up three-nothing on the number one team in the country was palpable. You’ve got to be laser focused at the point, and I knew there was a lot of hockey left to be played.”
Merrimack would end up giving up that lead just as quickly as they had earned, as the Eagles scored 3 goals of their own in a five minute stretch that followed, capped off by an early 3rd period goal that would put the Eagles ahead for good.
”It was a learning experience,” explains Dennehy. “We can’t take much from it now, but it was a precursor to where we are today and showed that we can play with the best teams in the country.”
Since the beginning of their second half campaign on December 29th, the Warriors have seemingly turned the tables around. Fresh off defeats of Hockey East foes UNH and UMass Lowell, both ranked nationally, the Warriors find themselves in the midst of a 7-2-1 stretch that has them back in the national conversation, in 2nd place in their conference, and 20th in the Pairwise Rankings that are taken under heavy consideration when determining the 16 teams that will make the NCAA tournament.
I saw down with Merrimack captain and blue-liner Jordan Heywood to talk about tonight’s battle for first place.
PB: Was your preparation any different this week heading into such a huge match-up?
JH: We’re not really focused on who we’re playing, although it obviously adds to the excitement of the game. There’s big implications, but we try to stay focused on us. We feel that if we prepare properly, we work hard, and do the little things right, that’ll give us the best chance to win and we have the ability to beat every team in the country.
What do you take from the 4-3 loss to this team back in November?
You just can’t get too high with the highs and low with the lows. I think we obviously got too high on the bench, we were pretty excited. But they’re a team who has the ability to score in large volumes pretty quickly. I don’t expect there to be that drastic shift of momentum this time. But, you never know. If it happens you just have to be prepared to go out there the next shift and work even harder.
How do you contain “Johnny Hockey” – BC’s star sophomore and Team USA hero Johnny Gaudreau?
Obviously you have a little more focus at times when he’s on the ice because he’s a tremendous player, but, again, we’re not focusing on what they’re doing or what their players are doing. We just feel that if we stick to our focus and stick to our game plan those little things will take care of themselves.
Is it intimidating squaring up with BC, or is it an exciting challenge?
Yeah, I don’t feel intimidated playing them. It’s pretty easy for teams to be intimidated, though. I remember freshman year, the first game [against BC], feeling kind of intimidated, but you realize pretty quickly that they sweat and they bleed just like you do.
If I had told you 6 weeks ago you’d be playing BC at home for first place on February 15th, would you have believed me?
I think so, yeah. Earlier in the year we saw flashes of how good our team can be, but we also saw flashes of how bad we can be. We were pretty inconsistent at times. But just seeing how young our team was and how well we’ve grown…you don’t want to be overconfident in yourself, but from pretty early in the year I believed we had a pretty good team. We have a lot of good players. It was just kind of part of the process to wait that out and just make sure we’re doing the little things right, so that when it comes to games like tonight, we’re ready.
Was there ever a point where you thought ‘okay, maybe this is a lost season’? Did anyone ever give up?
No, if anyone had given up we wouldn’t be at the point we’re at now. It doesn’t mean there wasn’t frustration. It’s really frustrating, a lot of times, because it’s just saying the same things over and over, but a lot of it is just a process. It takes time for players to mature and develop into the player that the team needs them to be. It’s just coming to the rink every day with the idea that you have to work hard. The teams who really do that over the course of the season are the ones who will be there at the end.
93% of voters in my recent poll say this team can get out of the first round of the Hockey East tournament, while 50% believe you can make the Hockey East Finals and the NCAA Tournament. How far can this team go?
The way that college hockey works is that the team who is playing the best at the right time can go the whole way. You don’t have that 7 game series format. Once you get past the first round it’s just one game, and if you can put together one game then you can beat anyone. You start to build some confidence and anything can happen. You look at BC last year, and they won 19 in a row to end the season when no one, at the beginning, really thought they were going to be that good. I think this team could do that too, I definitely believe that. It’s all about having your players play well at the right time.
Do you feel like you’ve hit that stride the last few games?
I think so. I think it’s just guarding the team against feeling like we’ve arrived at anything, because we haven’t. Sure we’re playing for 1st place, but Providence is a point behind us, UNH is a point behind us. BU is 3 points behind us. You drop two games and suddenly you’re down in fourth or fifth place. No one’s running away with it and I don’t think anyone is going to run away with it. For us every game is against a top 6 or 7 team. Every game is big.
How big are the fans, who still believe in you even after a rocky first half? How big of a boost is it when they’re packed in Lawler?
It’s a huge boost. The first thing every player does when they skate out onto the ice is look down to the fan section to see what the turnout is. When you see that fan section full it definitely gives you a jump in your step. Hearing them chanting, cheering and having fun…it’s a small rink and gets pretty loud in there quickly. It makes a huge difference. We really appreciate it when you guys come out.
So now it’s your turn: who wins tonight’s Battle for First, Merrimack or BC? Vote below!