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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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.