Warriors Coming Out to Play
by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
What has happened to the Merrimack Warriors?
Just seven months after finishing last season a dismal 3-27-4, the Warriors are 6-4-1 in the first third of the season, and are coming off a weekend sweep of Maine, something they had not done in program history.
The Warriors struggles in Hockey East are well documented. When Mark Dennehy took over as head coach in 2005, he knew it would be a long process, but not even he knew what he was getting into.
Dennehy uses the analogy of two popular "fix-it" shows, saying that the Merrimack reclamation project was more of an "Extreme Makeover," and less of a "Flip This House."
Dennehy's recruiting efforts, along with that of assistant Darren Yopyk, are starting to pay off. The Warriors' early success has come despite carrying 20 underclassmen on the roster, and just seven upperclassmen. In fact, team-captain Derek Pallardy is the only senior on the roster.
Still, he doesn't seem fazed by his team's early success.
"You know what I'm like. I've tried sales and I wasn't very good at it, I need to believe in what I am doing, and every game we have gone into this season, I thought we could win," Dennehy said after the Warriors completed the sweep of Maine, 2-1, on Saturday night. "Looking back, of course I can believe it; I've lived through the games."
Part of the resurgence is owed to the return of forward Rob Ricci, who had 26 points as a freshman. He sat out a team-imposed suspension all of last season due to a violation of team rules, and has come back with a vengeance, netting 12 points in 11 games.
"Ricci makes everyone better," Dennehy said. "He just does so much. There are times in the game where players look to one player for leadership, and he gives us that. Last year, there were some nights where we were looking around for that. He is that for us. He can do a little bit of everything."
One thing that impressed Maine head coach Tim Whitehead was not just Ricci's offensive ability, but his knack for winning faceoffs.
"One of the big factors the entire weekend was Rob Ricci's faceoffs," he said. "I mean, he was just incredible. I threw everyone I could out there to try to stop him, but it seemed like he just won every faceoff. It was unbelievable. He is a little stocky, and gets down low, he was just great."
While Ricci has helped the offense, the Warriors have been winning their games the blue-collar way. There hasn't been a game this season that they have lost the blocked shots category, another thing that Whitehead noticed.
"They blocked a lot of shots," he said. "We had that one power play at the end of the game (on Saturday) and they blocked the lanes, kept the front of the net clear, they did what they had to do."
For Dennehy, it's just how he wants his team to play.
"It's a testament to our guys and their guts," he said. "We had 17 blocks on Saturday. That's 17 pucks that Pat Watson doesn't need to stop. (On Saturday) John Jamieson had a great block on a Maine power play late in the game."
Another key on defense has been sophomore Joe Loprieno, who could be one of the more underrated defensemen in Hockey East. He doesn't score a lot of points, but defensively, Dennehy believes you would be hard pressed to find someone better.
"Joe Loprieno is not very fun to play against," he said. "He broke a paper towel dispenser (Friday) night, and it just shows you, he really, really competes. His play, and everyone else, it's a testament to how hard they have worked over the last 18 months, without much reward. It's nice for them."
Merrimack has already doubled its win total from last season, and the sweep of the Black Bears was their first Hockey East weekend sweep since Northeastern on February 18-19, 2000.
Things are looking up in North Andover.