Grinders Light it Up for Merrimack
by Mike Machnik/CHN Senior Editor
MANCHESTER, N.H. Merrimack roared its way to a best-ever fourth place finish in Hockey East this season on the strength of well-known stars like Stephane Da Costa, Chris Barton, Karl Stollery and goalie Joe Cannata.
But it was the all-junior line of Ryan Flanigan, Carter Madsen and Elliott Sheen — listed third on the depth chart — that led the way in the league tournament.
Flanigan scored at least once in every one of the four playoff games — including twice in the championship game against Boston College (BC won, 5-3) — and was the tournament's leading scorer with five goals and four assists for nine points. If Merrimack had beaten BC for the title (the game was tied 3-3 with six minutes to play), he almost certainly would have captured the tournament MVP award.
Madsen (3-4—7) had a hat trick in the 6-2 quarterfinal clinching win over Maine and tied for second in scoring in the tournament with Sheen (4-3—7), who scored twice in the 4-1 semifinal win over New Hampshire.
Every great line deserves a name. "Grit" or "Grinder Line" seemed to characterize the trio earlier in the year, but as the season has progressed, Merrimack's grinders have been doing a lot more than grinding. They've scored 12 of the team's 18 goals in the postseason heading into Saturday's Northeast Regional matchup with Notre Dame.
Asked what he calls them, Warrior coach Mark Dennehy had to think for a second. "We've called them 'Gray', because that's what they wear in practice," Dennehy said. "But they don't care what I call it as long as I call it.
"People have referred to them as our third line, but I've never thought of them as that. They've always given us energy, they've always given us grit. They've all killed penalties.
"I don't know if they've stopped talking to Flanny now that he's big time on the power play," Dennehy joked. "But they get along well. They've been together more than any line we've had."
"Even when they weren't producing points, they've been effective all year long."
It's the only line that has been together all year for the Warriors. And each of the juniors is having a career year. Flanigan has totals of 15-17—32, doubling the 7-9—16 numbers he recorded his first two seasons. Madsen's 10-11—21 scoring line is more than double the 4-6—10 he carried into this year. And Sheen's 7-13—20 comes after 6-7—13 as a freshman and sophomore.
Madsen and Sheen, both natives of Alberta, played together before Merrimack for the AJHL's Okotoks Oilers. Late last season, they were joined by Flanigan, who hails from Rochester, N.Y. by way of the EJHL's Bay State Breakers.
"I think I've adopted the Alberta Junior Hockey League," Flanigan said.
"Scotty Bowman likes to put two guys that he likes together and then he'll rotate third guys in until he finds one," Dennehy said. "Sheener and Carter have played together for a long time anyway. Even when we recruited them, we knew that might be a possibility.
"Flanny just kind of found his way to that line. He's intelligent. He understood what we needed him to do on that line. And he let those other guys buzz around a little bit. Before you knew it, they started doing good work down low. Early on in the year, we possessed the puck against some teams for long stretches, and they were leading the team in time of possession."
And up there in ice time too. Flanigan moved up to the top power play unit last weekend with Barton sidelined due to injury. All three players have also played on the penalty kill for some time. In fact, Sheen leads the team with three shorthanded goals.
"Energizer bunny," Dennehy said of Sheen. "Never exhausted. Whenever I ask him if he's ready, he's always ready. He's just got endless energy. He really gets around the sheet. He's got dimensional speed. All you had to see was that shorthanded goal against Maine, when he broke two guys.
"Sheener's got some great speed, he gets down there and agitates the defenders," said Flanigan. "He gets on pucks real quick and gets them to us."
"[Madsen's] really good in the corners," said Dennehy. "Defensively, he does a real good job for us down low. He has a knack for coming out of piles with the puck. He stickhandles the puck through people. He's been throwing more pucks to the net and having more success. But he's got the harder responsibility [as the center] at both ends."
"Down low in the zone, I get the puck on the wall and throw it to the middle, I know [Madsen]'s going to be there," said Sheen.
"Sniper," Madsen said when asked about Flanigan — eliciting a laugh from his linemate. "He's been pretty hot on the stick lately, so that's how I'll describe him. He's been putting the puck in the net. That's what we need and like to do as a line, and he's been doing that well."
"When [Flanigan] gets himself going, he can really skate too," said Dennehy. "Early in his career, he had an issue with not moving his feet when he had the puck. He's really worked hard to overcome that. He shoots the puck better than anyone on that line. He's got a sneaky, hard shot, and he's been getting it off with more regularity. You see his shot totals, he's second on the team. And pound for pound, he hits harder than probably anybody on our team."
Confidence begets confidence. Back in the Maine series, knowing the way the line was taking control of the game when it was on the ice, Dennehy started putting it out against the opponents' top guns. It's been on the ice for seven goals at even strength — and just one against — on the way to a plus-24 rating combined. In four playoff games.
"We're just trying to use what they do effectively," said Dennehy. "I think a lot of times people think, 'That's a pretty good offensive line, you want to put a defensive line against them.'
"But we don't want to defend. It's not fun to defend. And if you're in your zone a lot, you're not going to have a lot of success. What they do is sort of the reverse monkey. They put pressure on the offensive lines by making them defend. They possess the puck down low, and a lot of offensive players don't like to play defense. And the longer they're in their zone, the further they are from your net, the better the chance you have of keeping them off the board."
"I don't think our role really changes," said Madsen. "We need to be aware of those guys on the ice, and make sure we're doing what we need to do to keep the puck out of our net. And we do that well by playing in their zone and cycling down low in their zone."
"Sheener's buzzing around you, Carter's in your feet and stickhandling, and Flanny, if you've got your head down, he'll give you a good lick," Dennehy said.
"They all bring something a little bit different to the table, but there are also similarities.
"They're not fun to play against."