Back in the National Conversation
When the team left for the Christmas hiatus, they were sporting a disappointing 6-8-4 record. For a team who had achieved unparalleled success for the program the previous two seasons, this came as a surprise. Their dismal record included an ugly 4-4-1 Hockey East conference record, and a 3-3-3 record at home in Lawler Arena where these Warriors had typically thrived.
Since the break, Merrimack has gone 8-3-3, including a 5-1-0 record at home and an 8-2-2 mark in Hockey East play. These totals have pushed Merrimack up to 17th place in the USCHO.com National Rankings, as well as first place in the Hockey East Standings.
Where the rankings really matter, though, are in the Pairwise Rankings (PWR), which help the NCAA selection committee determine which teams qualify for the chance to play for the National Championship. The top 16 teams make the NCAA Tournament, and Merrimack is currently tied for 17th with Rensselaer Polytech. With 6 games left on their schedule, all of which are against Hockey East teams and 4 of which are against nationally ranked competition (no. 4 BC, no. 15 BU, no. 12 ULowell twice), the Warriors hold their destiny in their hands.
With that in mind, how far can this Merrimack team go? Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy has high hopes.
“I believe our best hockey is ahead of it,” he said. “We’re back in the conversation, which means we’ve done some good things. But if you want to dream it, you have to believe it. I’ll be damned if I go on the bench with a team who doesn’t believe they can win that night.”
Bigos Improving Play
Senior defenseman Kyle Bigos broke the Hockey East and Merrimack College penalty minute (PIM) records in the same game on January 11th against Boston University, a game in which he amassed 16 PIM individually. In 10 games since then, he has received only 13 PIM, 5 of which came on from one major Sunday that was retaliation to a penalty that seriously injured sophomore wing Clayton Jardine.
Bigos, who was criticized early in the season for sloppy play and lack of leadership, was stripped of his assistant captain title just before Merrimack’s weekend series with Providence in early December per a “team decision.” Coach Dennehy weighed in on Bigos’ play of late:
“Kyle has played with a lot of discipline lately. He has played like the type of leader that we thought he could be, that his teammates thought he could be. But we’re only as good as our next decision in life. He just needs to keep playing the way he’s playing. I think he’s playing some of the best hockey of his career, and I’m happy that it’s in his senior year. This team needs him to continue that type of play.”
Goaltending Depth Key To Success
No Merrimack goalie had started two consecutive games this season until January 18th, when junior Sam Marotta played in his second consecutive game at Maine, a 1-1 tie. Previously, Dennehy had played the goalies in a platoon, although he always denied this, explaining he was simply “going with the matchups.”
However, after Tirronen struggled in his first two starts of the second half, losses to Union College and Boston University in which he surrendered 3 and 4 goals, respectively, it appears Dennehy has made a switch. Since January 18th, Marotta has started 10 straight games and earned a 7-1-2 record. In the 12 games he’s started during the second half, Marotta has allowed more than 2 goals only once (6 at UNH January 26th), posted 2 shutouts (30 saves vs Maine 1/12, 25 saves vs UMass Lowell 2/1), and played his way to a 1.66 goals against average (GAA). Take out that UNH game, that number drops to 1.27.
Dennehy knows this depth is one of his team’s biggest strengths, and the key to their success.
“Our guys believe in our goaltending in general. It’s an area of strength for us. The guy who is the number one guy is the guy who is in net that night. Part of his [Tirronen’s] problem is that there aren’t two nets. But it will give him a chance to really ramp his game up, because we haven’t seen the best of him yet. It’s incumbent upon both goaltenders to really focus on the task at hand, which is simply: stop the puck. But that is very difficult to do. Sam’s been playing great, and he’s been the beneficiary because of his play.”
Now Refreshed, Bates Heating Up
Junior Shawn Bates had a difficult first half, struggling to consistently produce as he struggled to find consistent ice time. It was a vicious circle he seemingly couldn’t get out of, at least not before Christmas.
“After the break – it was just refreshing to go home, get away from it, see family – things have just been going well not just for me but for my entire line. We seem to be clicking and finding each other. It’s made it a lot easier coming to the rink and work with those guys. They’re [Jardine and Myers] so fun to work with. Hopefully we can keep it up.”
Since the team returned, Bates has played in all 14 games and been the third leading scorer with 8 points on 3 goals, highlighted by a 2 goal performance at UNH on February 2nd.
Second Half Totals (for games played since December 29th, 2012 to present)
Goals: Collins (6), Christie (3), Bates (3)
Team Goals: 34 – 11 scored by first line (32%) of Collins, Christie, Gould.
Assists: Collins (10), Christie (7), Bates/Bly (5)
Points: Collins (16), Christie (10), Bates (8), Bly/Ellis/Bigos (6)
PIM: Bigos (37), McCarthy (18), Myers/Kolomatis (14)