January 5, 2014 PRINT Bookmark and Share

The Rivalry No One Cares About

Providence, Merrimack Tie at Fenway

by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer

It's difficult to play a team as often as Merrimack and Providence do without something more developing between the clubs.

Prior to the 2011-12 season, the annual battles meant little more than the couple Hockey East points at stake. Each spent most of the previous few years with little success. From 2003 through 2010, either Providence or Merrimack finished last in Hockey East every year.

The games grew chippy from time to time and the occasional thriller developed, but it didn't matter much. Not many beyond those precious few paid any attention. It was Merrimack, and it was Providence. And it barely mattered.

Then came Mark Dennehy. Then came Nate Leaman. And the significance of the games between the two started to matter more — to more people. In 2011, Merrimack crept to the top of a media poll just ahead of a meeting with Providence. The Friars swept the Warriors twice, and Merrimack never recovered. Since, both Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy and Providence coach Nate Leaman have noticed a jump in the intensity between their clubs. Respect is part of it, but it's clear these Hockey East foes don't care much for each other on the ice.

"My first year, they were ranked No. 1 in the country, and we swept them," Leaman said. "There's been a lot of intensity in the series since then. There was a lot of intensity tonight. I thought it really started to build in the second period. I could feel how intense it was from the bench."

Saturday afternoon, Merrimack, Providence and their fledgling rivalry moved to a bigger stage — Fenway Park. The result was just the same. A hard-fought game between a pair of league rivals that ended in a 1-1 draw. While the game was played as a non-conference tilt, it came with the same intensity, the same physicality, as any other meeting between the clubs.

"I'd say, based on our history with Providence since coach Leaman's gotten there, I'd say it was pretty apropos," Dennehy said. "It was a good game. It's two hard-nosed teams, and it was a hard-fought game. We played them three times, and each of those times came down to a bounce of a puck. It wasn't the result we wanted, but, that said, it could've gone either way."

Earlier this season, Providence swept Merrimack in a home-and-home pair. Even with Providence fighting a Hockey East championship and national prominence and Merrimack struggling at the other end of the standings, it's clear these teams respect — and dislike — each other just the same.

Within Hockey East, rivalries are everywhere. Most notably, the Boston College and Boston University struggle for prominence on Commonwealth Avenue dominates the mind of college hockey fans. Merrimack and Providence will never earn the same level of national acclaim. Among the players in the locker rooms — and the coaches — at Lawler Arena and Schneider Arena, those games are everything.

"I like Mark a lot," Leaman said. "I love the way his team plays. They compete their tails off. You have to be ready to play in a game like that. As a coach, I'll be honest, we played them three times, and we didn't lose to them. I'm pretty happy about that. In Hockey East, that's very tough. A lot of people will say, '(Providence is ranked, and Merrimack isn't),' but that's BS in this league. The bottom line is every game is tough. Every game is competitive. For us, to play them three times and not lose, I'm good with that."

After Saturday's game, Leaman looked back on the previous 65 minutes as a positive for his club. The draw didn't hurt PC's standing nationally, nor did it mean a wasted point in league play. The frequent stoppages for ice maintenance and commercials meant little momentum. The game, Leaman said, reminded him of an NCAA Tournament game — the he expects to play in with his Providence team.

For Dennehy, Saturday's hard-fought tie with Providence revealed some good signs for his club. Goals were still an issue, and Rasmus Tirronen revealed his usual brilliance in goal. Despite the disappointment of the draw, Dennehy believes his club's efforts against the Friars have proved it can compete with anyone.

All things considered, Saturday's draw was little more than a strong showing from each side. There were questions about the ice quality and the setting interfering with the players' focus. But it was Providence, and it was Merrimack. And the last few seasons have shown to expect something special when those two meet.

"It was a typical Hockey East game even though it was at Fenway Park. We've played Merrimack three times now. All of them have been close games. They're a good team, and their goaltender played very well tonight."

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