A Merrimack College Hockey second-half preview
After two seasons of unprecedented Division 1 success for the Merrimack College men’s hockey team, including a 2010-2011 campaign which saw the Warriors win a school record 25 games and earn a birth to their first ever NCAA Tournament, the team is off to a bit of a rocky start. Through the first half of the season, the team has managed only a 6-7-3 overall record, including an unimpressive 4-4-1 Hockey East record, good for only 6th place in the conference.
With a roster consisting of 16 underclassmen (including 7 freshmen) and only 4 seniors, consistency has been the biggest issue for Mark Dennehy’s squad. While many critics have written off the rest of this season for Merrimack hockey and praised the future of this young, deep squad, there may be more to look forward to in the second half than anyone outside the locker room believes. Here are my top 5 reasons to look for second-half success from Merrimack.
The Young and the Restless
Okay, technically I shouldn’t say “young” (no one on the team is younger than 20), but rather “inexperienced” as Dennehy likes to remind us. Four freshmen (Christie, Hussar, Scotti, Gustafsson) and seven sophomores (Toomey, Jardine, Singleton, Myers, Kolomatis, Mansfield and Tirronen) play regularly, while 3 other freshmen (Bahe, Robertson, Cronin) have seen limited ice time as well. After 16 games and 3 months practicing together, Merrimack critics and supporters have high hopes of this team meshing together and finding its identity in the second half.
Dennehy seems to be confident they will. When asked about the inexperience of his roster, he nonchalantly replied, “when their number gets called and they’re in the lineup, they’re in the lineup. Freshman, sophomore, junior…I think most of our guys have a pretty good understanding of how we play.”
Home Sweet Home
Although Merrimack has only managed a 3-3-3 record at home this season, Lawler Arena is one of the toughest places for any opponent to play, and somewhere the Warriors typically dominate. The win/loss results haven’t been exactly what the doctor ordered, but after this weekend’s Sheraton/TD Bank Catamount Cup to kick off the second half, Merrimack plays just as many home games as it does away. Better news? Five of those road games are against lackluster competition, with a weekend series at Maine, and games against Vermont, UMass, and Lowell.
Big Game in Big Games
One of the downfalls of an inexperienced team is “playing down” to opponents you should probably beat. This downfall turns into a perk, however, when playing a high-profile juggernaut. BC, anyone?
This Merrimack team absolutely plays up to its biggest opponents and enjoys making statements. The Warriors started this season by beating then-ranked #5 Union (now 13) on the road, later swept then #15 Northeastern in a home-and-home weekend series, lost a close battle to then #11 ranked BU (now #6), then went into the defending national champions’ house and took a 3-0 lead before eventually losing 4-3 to no. 1 ranked Boston College.
The Warriors will have plenty of chances to make statements in their final 20 games, as they take on #13 Union, #6 BU twice, #2 UNH three times, and #1 BC twice more at Lawler. In addition to their games against these ranked teams, they have 10 televised games on their slate (including 5 nationally televised broadcasts) and games against budding rival Providence and long-time school rival UMass Lowell.
Finally, after this weekend’s tournament in Vermont, every Merrimack game remaining is a Hockey East match-up and earns them points towards the postseason.
Are we really concerned about motivation for this team?
Goaltending, goaltending, goaltending
During the preseason, Dennehy decided nothing would be given to his team, including the title of “starting goaltender”. Therefore, he implemented a platoon between junior Sam Marotta and sophomore Rasmus Tirronen. When asked in early October about who would be the starter, Dennehy told us he wanted them both to “fight for the job” in order to “stay fresh and competitive.” I’ll be the first to admit I questioned his strategy, especially after watching Tirronen simply look over-matched in his first collegiate action against Northeastern on October 10th. However, after sticking religiously to his platoon, the strategy is not only working out, it’s one of the team’s biggest strengths.
Both goaltenders are sharp, rested and ready to play when called upon. They have nearly identical .914% (Tirronen) and .913% (Marotta) save percentages, and while neither have winning percentages above .500%, they’re both playing phenomenally. Think of Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez circa 2010 – he won the Cy Young Award with just a 13-12 record on a losing team, but was clearly the most dominant pitcher out there. That’s the type of season Marotta and Tirronen are having for Merrimack, and as long as that play continues, good things will come.
Nothing for Granted
In what was described solely as a “team decision,” senior assistant captain Kyle Bigos was stripped of his A in early December. In a lackluster start to the season, Bigos leads the team in PIM, while coach Dennehy has noted at times he “needs to play smarter.” The move would seemingly be to light a fire under the team and remind them that nothing is given and everything is earned. Although Kyle is their banging, bruising, senior blue-liner, his sloppy play and decision making hasn’t been exemplary of an assistant captain and needed to be removed. On a team full of youth and inexperience, setting the tone is one of the most important things Dennehy can do to improve his team. Hopefully, this serves as a reminder: If Kyle can lose his A, you can lose your spot, too. Keep playing, and keep playing hard. That’s what Warrior Hockey is all about, right?
The Verdict: This will be a fun second-half for Merrimack.
Mark Dennehy liked the direction his team was headed after wrapping up their first half a few weeks ago.
“What I like about how we play? We’ve been attacking in the 3rd. We’re on the balls of our feet, we’re taking ice, we’re shrinking the rink…those are all positives for us. Goals are like results – you can’t control them, as much as we’d like to. But I like our effort and I like our attitude over the last 5 or 6 games.
Life is not instant gratification – you don’t just get rewarded for hard work right away and that’s what we have to know. You’ve got to put [our] efforts together on a consistent basis and then you’ll be rewarded.”
If the season ended today, they’d have to win two games against Boston University. However, They’re only in 6th place in Hockey East. Three points separate 4th through 7th place in the conference as well, so a home playoff series is definitely up for grabs and they could easily wind up with a favorable playoff matchup at home for the first round of the Hockey East Tournament.
If you’re a Merrimack fan, be sure to keep all extremities inside the vehicle at all times, and stay strapped in. We’re in for an exhilarating roller-coaster ride to March.