Merrimack Turns Offense to Defense
by Scott McLaughlin/
NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. Count Merrimack as a devout follower of the theory that "the best defense is a good offense." The Warriors are now 3-0-0 on the season after beating Northeastern, 4-1, Friday night, and they've held all three of their opponents (Maine and Army were their first two) to 28 shots or fewer.
When asked about the key to keeping down opponents' shot totals, Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy didn't talk about good breakouts or getting in shooting lanes like you might expect, though.
"They don't keep time of possession in hockey, but for us, it's a big stat," Dennehy said. "We really try to play the game below the tops of the other team's circles. If you think about it, you cycle the puck a couple times, you're in their zone 20, 30 seconds. They're really expending a lot of energy, so then it's tough to get the puck and go on offense.
"So what usually ends up happening is they get the puck, they get the line, and they dump it and change. That doesn't enable them to get on the forecheck. So if you do a good job protecting the puck down low and cycling it, it's gonna be tough for the other team to get in a rhythm."
That dominance in time of possession was on full display Friday night. In addition to having 45 shots on goal to Northeastern's 28, the Warriors also registered 73 shots attempted to just 50 for the Huskies. If time of possession were an official stat, Merrimack would've held a wide margin there as well.
Regardless of which line was on the ice, the Warriors seemed to be spending the majority of every shift deep in the offensive zone. When it was time for a change — just like Dennehy described — the new line got to start with the puck thanks to a Northeastern dump-in. Then it was right back on the attack — a vicious cycle that Northeastern just couldn't seem to break. Merrimack's second and third goals (scored by defensemen Jordan Heywood and Kyle Bigos) both came after long offensive-zone possessions.
"You can look over systems and review systems, but it's winning 1-on-1 battles," said Northeastern coach Jim Madigan. "They won more 1-on-1 battles than us. You look at the second and third goal, we couldn't get the puck out three, four feet from the blue line. They kept it in and created scoring opportunities."
Even worse for opponents is that the Warriors are a tough team to score on even when you do get in the offensive zone. Despite losing two stalwarts in Adam Ross and Fraser Allan to graduation, they still have a strong defense that wins battles down low (much like the offense at the other end) and transitions the puck to the forwards quickly. Oh, and in net they have senior Joe Cannata, who might be the best goalie in Hockey East.
Merrimack's defensive corps still has some room to grow. Replacing Ross and Allan are sophomore Tom McCarthy, who saw action in just 14 games last year, and freshman Dan Kolomatis. Dennehy said he's still "mixing and matching" when it comes to pairings, too.
While the back end continues to take shape, it will have the Warriors' relentless offense there to lighten the load. A lot was made before the season about Merrimack losing its top three scorers from a season ago in Stephane Da Costa, Chris Barton and Joe Cucci. But what seemed to get overlooked was the fact the Warriors brought back six other 20-point scorers, including 30-point scorers Ryan Flanigan, Jesse Todd and Mike Collins.
In fact, Merrimack returned 97 goals this season, more than any other team in Hockey East. While some seem to think last year's squad was one that depended on Da Costa for offense, it was actually one of the deepest teams in the conference, and still is. The Warriors' dominance in time of possession and chances created (they've outshot their opponents 114-72 combined) is evidence of that.
"It makes it really easy," Bigos said of the offense's effect on the defense. "It opens up a lot of plays for the defense, too. Watching them go to work is really awesome. We go against them in practice all week, and it's hard. They're fast, they're speedy, they're really determined. So to watch them go to work on other teams is really a treat."