Something to Prove
Merrimack Ready to Overcome Doubters
by Michael King/CHN Writer
NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. After losing some of the league's top players, many around college hockey wondered if Merrimack could repeat last year's impressive season. Retaining several top forwards, a deep defensive corps and arguably the best goaltender in Hockey East, the consensus was that the team was experienced and talented, but would experience difficulty maintaining consistent results in such a deep league.
The league's coaches agreed, predicting a fifth-place finish after a season punctuated by 25 wins and an NCAA tournament bid.
Merrimack was intent on proving that this team was as good, if not better, than the one from 2010-11, as it immediately continued the success it enjoyed last year that ended on a fluke overtime goal against Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament. The Warriors entered the month of December unbeaten behind a 9-0-1 record.
However, those results now stand in stark contrast to the team's recent form. Since the 9-0-1 start, Merrimack has gone 8-10-6. Though still among the top teams in Hockey East, Merrimack's recent play has demonstrated that an easier schedule to start the season was a factor in the hot start.
Merrimack played several difficult non-conference games in the first half, but it also had the luxury of facing some of the worst of Hockey East — Vermont and Northeastern — six times. Those games yielded 11 of 12 possible points.
The disparity in the schedule is more evident with consideration that Merrimack played only two games against the top half of the conference from October through December.
However, Dennehy argues that the experience of battling through a difficult period of hockey after starting 10 games undefeated helped to uniquely galvanize his squad.
"It's pretty well documented the start we had," the coach said on a conference call on Tuesday. "And as appreciative as I am to have had it, it had an interesting effect on our club. Getting off to the type of start we did was almost like an extension of last year. We played Providence in early December and took a couple punches to the chin. It wasn't until we went through that rough path that we really found our team identity.
"We ended up needing that start, but it really delayed our team-building process," he added.
The development of his team will be tested this weekend as the Warriors enter the Hockey East playoffs against Maine. As it turned out, the coaches were correct in selecting Merrimack for fifth place. The contrast of the team's place in the PairWise and league position suggests an impressive depth to Hockey East this year.
However, it also means that the Warriors are faced with the difficult task of having to win a playoff series in Orono.
Being on the extreme edge of the tournament, Merrimack needs to make a run in the Hockey East playoffs to have a realistic opportunity for the NCAA tournament. With so many variables in play, it's uncertain how many victories the team requires. The only guarantee is that two more losses will sink its profile and end the season.
Merrimack has fared well against the Black Bears in 2011-12, defeating them at Alfond Arena to begin the season and taking three points in a January series in North Andover. The Warrior defense, led by senior goaltender Joe Cannata, held Maine to five goals in the three games.
That's quite an accomplishment facing a team that boasts arguably the best line in college hockey between seniors Spencer Abbott and Brian Flynn and junior Joey Diamond.
Beset with such a challenge to open the conference playoffs is consistent with the structure of Merrimack's season. Of course, the inverse of having an easy schedule to begin implies the finish will be much more difficult. And that's precisely what the Warriors have battled through recently.
Dennehy estimated on Tuesday that, "there was probably not a tougher half of hockey in the country and I really like the way we came through it."
Often, Merrimack played well in defeat through the closing weekends of Hockey East play.
Perhaps the Warriors' loss to Boston College at Lawler Arena several weeks ago best illustrates their situation. The frustration for Merrimack, after playing one of its best games of the year and no points to show for the effort, was palpable.
"We like to say we've played playoff hockey all year long," Dennehy said.
And to crack the NCAA Tournament again, the Warriors must keep that going.