Sometimes It’s Heaven That Freezes Over

Merrimack Hockey  to play at Fenway Park for  Frozen Fenway in January

"Frozen Fenway" at Fenway Park. Merrimack College is expected to play Providence in January, 2014

“Frozen Fenway” at Fenway Park. Merrimack College is expected to play Providence January 4, 2014

Hockey East officially announced today what has been speculation for the past several months: college hockey is returning to Fenway Park.

Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna said the following in a statement released today:

“We are excited about the return of hockey to Fenway Park. We are particularly pleased that with these two doubleheaders, all of our men’s programs will have had the opportunity to experience Frozen Fenway, including the University of Notre Dame, our newest member.”

When Fenway Park last held its Frozen Fenway event in January 2012, Merrimack College was not one of the schools chosen to participate. This time, however, Merrimack will the opportunity to play against Providence College, a budding rivalry that has resulted in exciting, physical hockey games between the two programs who have become just as tough members of the Hockey East conference as any other school.

The news became official today when the City of Boston approved the necessary permits needed in order to make Frozen Fenway happen.

Merrimack will play Providence College in the first game of a double-header on January 4th, with Boston College taking on Notre Dame University – the newest addition to Hockey East in 2014 – in the later game. The Merrimack/Providence game will be a non-conference game, so the outcome will not affect the Hockey East standings.

“Even though this has been done before, playing at Fenway is still truly exciting for all involved,” Merrimack hockey head coach Mark Dennehy told College Hockey News’ Mike McMahon. “Merrimack is proud to be a part of this event.”

 

There’s A Storm Coming, Boston College

Connor Toomey scores the game-winner in OT last week against BC

Connor Toomey scores the game-winner in OT last week against BC

There’s a blizzard outside for the third weekend in a row. The weathermen originally predicted another monstrous storm to hit us, but in the wake of those comments the predictions were scaled back and it’s been a relatively quiet weekend as far as snow goes. About an hour ago, no one expected anything significant to happen. Now, just 2 hours before puck drop, it’s snowing so hard it may never snow again. How appropriate.

After Merrimack stormed back into the National Conversation in the past few weeks, capped by a 2-1 overtime victory against Boston College last weekend, things have seemingly calmed a bit. Last week, the anticipation before the game was practically palpable as you walked through campus; every one was buzzing about the Battle for First. The last few days, however, things have cooled unseasonably, but today’s matchup remains crucial to both Merrimack’s playoff dreams and BC’s playoff seeding. With a Merrimack victory, they jump to 13th place in the Pairwise Ranking, good for a spot in the NCAA Tournament should the season end tomorrow.

Maybe it’s a a trap to lure in the unsuspecting Eagles, although after last week’s gritty win from the Warriors, unsuspecting isn’t quite the word I’d expect to us to describe BC. This blizzard could be a sign of things to come this afternoon. It’s about time someone else claimed the Hockey East throne, and while Merrimack stands atop the perch, it’s a damn good time to make one final statement to the perennial champions. There’s a storm coming, Boston College. Look out.

Keys to the Game:

Stay on the Ice!

Merrimack did a really good job of playing intelligent hockey last week to stay out of the penalty box. In total, Merrimack only committed 5 penalties, while BC committed 10, including four in the third period and overtime. The OT Power Play would ultimately give Merrimack the victory as Connor Toomey scored the advantage goal while Pat Mullane was in the box for interference. BC has killed right around 86% of it’s penalties and scored on about 22% of opponents’. If you translate those numbers to the NHL, BC would be ranked 6th and 9th, respectively. Merrimack does not want to get into a special teams battle.

Part of playing smart means smart hitting, which Merrimack in the past has struggled with. They need to get out and make some big hits early, simply sending a message that says “Hey, we’re here. This is our house. We’re not backing down.” If  BC comes out and runs the table, sending Merrimack bodies flying in the first, it’ll be a long afternoon. Clip those wings and hurt their confidence early and it’ll go a long way.

Defense, Defense, Defense!

Merrimack defenders love to dive on the ice and block pucks and did so again last week, blocking 17 shots taken by BC shooters. Diving for pucks and saving the goalie is a staple of Merrimack hockey, and they need to keep it up if they want to win again today. While Sam Marotta is playing tremendously in net, BC has 5 players with 20 or more points, and 3 above 30. This team is tremendously skilled and will pepper Marotta with shots every chance they get, especially if they get rolling on the Power Play. Marotta may be playing like a superstar right now, but he can’t do it alone.

Capitalize on Offensive Chances

You’re not going to score a lot of pretty goals on these BC defensemen. Period. Parker Milner is playing some of the best hockey of his career in net as a senior as well, and while he’s never really played well at Merrimack, he’s still very good. Merrimack needs to get into their offensive rhythm early on and consistently keep it at their pace throughout the game, period-to-period. They can very easily score goals in bunches, but BC may be the biggest threat to match this feat in the league, as evidenced by the teams’ first meeting where Merrimack scored 3 goals in 5 minutes to take a commanding 3-0 lead, only to watch it disappear 7 minutes later. They need to get the puck on net, get a defender in front of Milner to block his view, and just keep chipping away until an ugly goal or 3 find the back of the net.

Follow live updates on Twitter at @PatBradleyUSCHO

Your Turn : Who wins today?

Merrimack/BC Preview: 1-on-1 with Jordan Heywood

Battle For First

 

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!

Poll: Who do you LOVE to Hate?

BC, BU, UNH, and ULowell. 4 of Merrimack's fiercest Hockey East rivals

BC, BU, UNH, and ULowell. 4 of Merrimack’s fiercest Hockey East rivals

This Friday Merrimack takes on #4 Boston College in a battle for 1st place in Hockey East in what is sure to be a hard fought, well played battle. The last time these teams met in November, Merrimack jumped to a 3-0 lead in the second period before seeing it vanish before the end of the period, ultimately losing by a 4-3 margin to the then #1 team in the country. Losses like these surely stew in the minds of Merrimack diehards, so we want to know: which Hockey East team do you LOVE to HATE? Cast your vote in the poll below, and don’t forget to to check out yesterday’s poll “How far can the Merrimack Hockey team go?” Right now, 92% of voters think the Warriors will make it out of the first round of the Hockey East Tournament!

Poll: How Far Can Merrimack Hockey Go?

Sophomores Connor Toomey and Josh Myers "Tebowing" in a picture at the team's annual Skate with Santa event in December

Sophomores Connor Toomey and Josh Myers “Tebowing” in a picture at the team’s annual Skate with Santa event in December

After a tough first half, the Warriors have come storming back to reclaim a national ranking, this week moving up a spot to #19. Considering the completely different teams we’ve seen on the ice this season, what do you think? Can this team make a deep run in the Hockey East Tournament? Can they still make the NCAAs with a month left? Voice your opinion below, and feel free to chat it up in the comments section!

Huskies Send Warriors Whimpering

Presenting your 2012-2013 Merrimack College Warriors © Blind Obedience

“Every night is a grind.”

Jim Madigan, Northeastern University’s head hockey coach, couldn’t have summed up Wednesday night’s Hockey East opener better.

Merrimack College head coach Mark Dennehy’s opinions didn’t differ, stating simply “you have to play a full 60 minutes to win…we didn’t deserve to win this game.”

Merrimack got off to a tough start Wednesday night as goaltender Rasmus Tirronen,  getting his first collegiate ice time during his first collegiate start,  gave up 3 opening period goals, the first coming just :53 seconds into the game.

A rowdy, rousing NU student section was endlessly heckling Tirronen as soon as he took the ice, something he’ll have to get used to in the Hockey East.

Despite immediately facing an uphill challenge, Dennehy was relatively pleased with Tirronen’s performance.

“I thought he played fine,” said Dennehy. “He was not our problem tonight.”

To be fair, Dennehy had a point. After the first three goals, Tirronen settled and made several spectacular saves to stymie Northeastern’s offense. Merrimack just looked slower, as the Huskies skated figure eights around them throughout the first period. In the defensive zone, Merrimack was hitting hard when they could slow the game down, but all three goals came off a Merrimack turnover in transition.

Seeing this, Dennehy called a timeout and laid out the game plan very simply for his team, now trailing 3-0. The Huskies, who outshot Merrimack 16-6 in the first period, were seemingly unafraid to let loose on Tirronen.

“I said ‘well, look what they’ve done in just 8 and a half minutes…we’ve got 51 and a half left.’”

After the timeout, the Warrior forecheck suddenly reappeared, but it was “too little, too late.”

What Merrimack needed was their big, bruising, six-foot, five-inch defenseman, Kyle Bigos. Bigos, who left Saturday’s game with an undisclosed injury, said about his injury before Wednesday’s game simply “I don’t know. Lower body injury.”

Dennehy didn’t clarify the problem in his post game press conference, copying Bigos’ sentiment, saying “Let me see if I can do my best Bill Belicheck: lower body injury.”

In Bigos’ stay, freshman Sean Robertson suited up, making his collegiate debut.

In fact, Merrimack had 4 freshmen active tonight, including the debut of forward Ben Bahe and center Brian Christie, as well as a second appearance for wing Justin Hussar.

Merrimack came out much stronger in the second and took advantage of a chippy period featuring 10 penalties. Asked about the chippiness of the game, Dennehy was unsurprised, stating “that’s just Northeastern and Merrimack…gritty hockey at both ends.”

Sophomore Quinn Gould put Merrimack on the board just 4:20 into the second with a transition 4 on 4 goal on assists from John Heffernan and Justin Hussar. In the minutes before, the Warriors were controlling possession during a 3 on 3 and a brief 4 on 3 Power Play. After ripping several hard shots, Gould finally scored on a one timer coming off a cross-ice pass.

A questionable interference call to Justin Mansfield midway through the second led to an NU power play, eventually killed by the Warriors. Just seconds after Mansfield got released from the box, he ripped a one timer from Josh Myers that rebounded, which he followed, and eventually squeezed past goalie Chris Rawlings for Merrimack’s second goal of the night.

“We clawed ourselves back in,” said Dennehy, but the Huskies had already clawed away at the Warriors too much.

In the end, a back and forth final period ended with just one empty net goal scored, and Northeastern pinched out a 4-2 win.

Something to note: both Merrimack goals came off of penalties from Northeastern freshman Cam Darcy, who was in the penalty box to watch both. Madigan highlighted this in his post game press conference, reminding everyone “you don’t win in this league without senior leadership.”

Mark Dennehy knows this all too well, as this year’s squad features only four seniors, three of whom were inactive tonight.

“We kind of shocked them,” said Huskies Captain, senior Vinny Saponari.

Shocked was an understatement. Said Dennehy about tonight’s game, “I felt like the guy on the top of the Titanic screaming ‘iceberg!’”

Well coach, the good news is that once you’ve sunk and reached rock bottom, the only place to go is up.

At least we hope.