Merrimack Hockey Update

A screenshot of hockeyeastonline.com's homepage following Merrimack's 2-1 overtime victory over BC last Friday

A screenshot of hockeyeastonline.com’s homepage following Merrimack’s 2-1 overtime victory over Boston College last Friday night at Lawler Arena

 

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)

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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!

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.