March 17, 2011 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Merrimack Riding Wave to Boston

by Joseph Edwards/CHN Writer

The last few weeks have certainly been a whirlwind for Merrimack.

The Warriors have risen to seventh overall (24-8-4) in the nation, ranked ahead of league-mates and traditional powers BU, Maine, and UNH. They won home ice in the first round of Hockey East playoffs for the first time since 1997. Not to mention, they have potential to snag a top seed in the NCAA postseason.

Two Merrimack forwards are among the top-50 in national scoring (sophomore Stephane Da Costa and senior Chris Barton), and goaltender Joe Cannata’s numbers put him among elite Division I goalies. Da Costa (14-27-41 in 30 games) and Barton (14-25-39 in 35 games) lead a balanced attack that features seven double-digit goal scorers, and 10 players with 15-plus points. Cannata has played all but 108 total minutes on the season, taking every decision along the way, ranking near the top in wins and goal-against average (2.41).

Such numbers could easily go to any team’s head, but this one has an appreciation for history: the senior class went just 12-18-4 as freshman, a step up from the 2006-07 season in which Merrimack went 3-27-4, coach Mark Dennehy’s first season behind the bench.

While their Friday night opponent UNH is almost always among the Hockey East semifinalists at the TD Garden in Boston, this will be Merrimack’s first experience there since 1998, back when the venue was known as the FleetCenter — and long before Dennehy took the reigns in North Andover.

“We’ve really tried to focus on what’s in front of us,” Dennehy said. “We’ve got an opportunity to accomplish another goal. We’ve made the playoffs, we got home ice and made it to the Garden.”

It’s been so long since any Merrimack team has hit the ice for such a meaningful game, it’s understandable to think Dennehy may face the task of keeping his corps focused on the game instead of the bright lights of an NHL arena.

Understandable, but also unnecessary.

“If you’ve seen the size of [sophomore defenseman] Kyle Bigos’ Royal Bank championship ring, you see that these guys have played in big games before,” Dennehy said, noting the program's decision to recruit players who had won championships. “Joe Cannata and John Heffernan have played at the Garden before, so this isn’t new territory for them. We’ll let them take in the Garden before practice on Thursday but after those few seconds, it’s all about what’s inside the glass.”

Experience in big games will be helpful, but it doesn’t earn them an automatic pass against a Wildcats’ team that resides at 10th in the country (21-9-6) and boasts the fifth-highest scorer in the country, three of the top-15 point-getters in Hockey East, and a goalie in Matt DiGiralomo who’s numbers match up well with Cannata’s.

“Their puck skills are extremely good. I just watched their game versus UVM and they were outshot 14-4 in the first period but they were up 1-0,” Dennehy recalled. “Their special teams play is good and their goaltender has played really well. They came within one game of winning the Hockey East Championship this year. We have our hands full.”

Merrimack is more than familiar with UNH, going 2-1-0 in the regular season series with the ‘Cats. Only one game was decided by more than one goal, while the others included UNH’s 2-1 come-from-behind win in November, and an 3-2 overtime decision that preceded a 4-2 win for the Warriors in February. The teams combined for 119 penalty minutes over the three games, including 85 in the final tilt.

There may be no love lost between them, but there’s still plenty of respect to go around.

“What [Dennehy has] done is he’s improved the quality of recruiting, he’s worked hard and he’s found a mix,” UNH Head Coach Dick Umile said. “It starts in net with Cannata and up front with Da Costa, Barton and [senior forward Joe] Cucci. Very, very balanced team … they’re big, they’re strong, and obviously they’re well coached. So they present a lot of challenges you have to pay attention. If you fall asleep they’ll get behind you. We’ve watched tape on them, they’re just a balanced team they play hard, they play physical and they’re gonna be a tough team to match up against.”

No matter what happens at the Garden on Friday (or even Saturday), Merrimack will make their return to Boston, and accomplish a goal that’s been years in the making. But don’t expect the Warriors to take their foot off the gas with so much more within reach.

“Our mantra all year has been ‘attack,’” Dennehy said. “We’ve done it in a variety of ways. Our power play has 40 goals and our defensemen are involved in the offense. We’ve got a number of goals that we’ve tried to elevate since we got here and one of those was making the playoffs and we accomplished that.

“I’m confident that our guys will be business-like this weekend as they have been all year.”

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