Collins Helping Merrimack Think Big Again
by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. Last Friday against No. 4 New Hampshire, Merrimack junior Mike Collins was at the end of a long shift. As UNH broke the puck up ice, he had the opportunity to make a change, but instead he somewhere found the energy to dart back down ice and broke up what was the beginnings of a breakaway for the Wildcats.
Collins had three points (2 goals and an assist) in a 3-2 win over the Wildcats last Friday. But perhaps his most important play was that game-saving backcheck in the second period.
That play has personified Collins’ game this season. Only a junior, he leads Hockey East in scoring with 25 points in 16 games, one more point than BC sophomore superstar Johnny Gaudreau, who is likely to be a Hobey Baker finalist, despite the fact that Gaudreau has played in two more conference games.
“Some of the better players in our league are playing with more established players,” Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy said. “Gaudreau is a great, great player. But, he’s playing with Steve Whitney and Pat Mullane, who both have over 100 points in their career. Kevin Goumas up at UNH is playing with John Henrion, who has 60-something points in his career as a junior. Mike’s playing with a freshman (Brian Christie) and (sophomore) Quinn Gould, who has gotten off to a good start but has been injured in his two years here. Teams are honing in on him, he’s not playing with established players, and he’s still getting it done.”
Collins leads all Hockey East juniors in career scoring. Even so, it hasn’t been about just the puck bouncing in the back of the net.
His game has completely transformed.
In the early parts of his career, when the Warriors implemented their stretch play more often than they do now, Collins was typically the one on his line that never sniffed the defensive zone, hanging by the red line waiting for a home-run breakout pass from one of his defensemen.
Now, he’s starring on the penalty kill. He leads all forwards on the team with 19 blocked shots and continues to play stellar plays on the defensive end of the ice.
Kyle Bigos, a senior, has played with Collins his entire Merrimack career. But even before that, the 6-foot-5 defenseman was Collins’ teammate with the Vernon Vipers of the British Columbia Hockey League. Together, the pair won a Royal Bank Cup Championship in 2009.
“One thing about Mike is he’s very coachable,” Bigos said. “I think that’s what makes him able to elevate his game at each level. I’ve seen it. Any info a coach tells him he uses it and that’s why you see him in position to make a play on the backcheck or always be close enough to the puck to turn up on offense.”
He’s also pretty smart.
Similar to the play last Friday, in Saturday’s game at UNH, Collins was again near the end of a shift. Instead of forcing a pass to a streaking Ben Bahe, who was on the opposite wing, he was at the defensive blue line and actually iced the puck.
Why? Because he knew that Bahe would beat out the icing and create a possession in the offensive zone.
“Everyone would have tried to force that pass across the ice,” Dennehy said. “He had nothing left. I mean, he was gassed. Icing the puck like that, that’s thinking far ahead. That’s thinking, literally, two plays ahead.”
Things seemed to click for Collins after a woeful trip to Alaska earlier this season for the Warriors.
Not only did Merrimack come back to North Andover with a pair of losses on its record, but Collins, a player who many figured needed to be a centerpiece this season, struggled mightily.
“I struggled bad up there,” he said. “I didn’t come out of the gates the way I would have liked. I made some really costly plays and big errors. I remember, in Alaska, Coach said he felt bad for me because I was working hard but things weren’t going my way.”
Since he’s returned, things couldn’t have gone better. In the 21 games since that Alaska trip, Collins has 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists), which is fifth in the nation over that timespan.
“At the beginning of the year, and definitely in Alaska, he was trying to do too much,” Dennehy said. “He was trying to take on too much of that scoring load. It’s ironic, because since he’s stopped worrying about scoring and being a more complete player, he’s scoring more.”
At the end of the day though, Collins doesn’t seem consumed by it.
When the point comes up that he only has eight games (out of 25) this season without a point, he shrugs it off. It might have been the first time he was even informed of the feat.
“I want to win,” he said. “That’s why I play. Winning is the most fun. I go out and work hard and you get some bounces, you’ll get some goals and assists but those are just bonuses to getting the only real two points that matter at the end of the night.”