April 10, 2011

From NEHJ: Merrimack's run to final bodes well for future

Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy (left) yells instructions during his team's Hockey East semifinal win against New Hampshire. (photo: Dave Arnold Photography)

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

BOSTON — In the middle of an unfamiliar place for his program, Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.) found something quite familiar.

On March 12, Merrimack advanced past the quarterfinal round of the Hockey East playoffs for the first time in 13 years. A week after dispatching Maine inside their tiny 3,000-seat Lawler Arena, the Warriors shipped down to Boston to play in the 17,565-seat TD Garden, a place that has undergone two name changes since they were last there for a 7-2 trouncing by Boston College in the 1998 semifinals.

The firsts kept coming. Merrimack led for the first time at the Garden and didn’t relinquish that lead en route to a victory over UNH in the semis, earning a first-ever berth in the Hockey East championship game.

So when the Warriors came to the arena for the title game March 19 against Boston College, they were strangers in a strange land, but Dennehy found himself in a place he’d definitely been before.

On March 29, 2004, with Dennehy on the bench as an assistant to Don “Toot” Cahoon (Lynn, Mass.), UMass played an epic triple-overtime final against Maine, falling just short of that program’s first league title. Seven years later, Dennehy brought his own Merrimack team to the Garden, and the Warriors were assigned the very same locker room the Minutemen used on that memorable night.

“It wasn’t lost on me that we were in the same locker room that we were in with UMass when we went to the finals,” Dennehy said after the Warriors fell to BC, 5-3. “And I called people I trust, Don Cahoon being one of them, just to remind me of what I should talk to my team about, maybe something I don’t want to forget when we get there. Nothing about the play, but just the experience. I think it’s very important to have somebody who’s been there. It’s very easy to get caught up in a lot of it.”

If the Warriors did indeed get caught up in the bright lights of the Hockey East final, they did well to hide it. Boston College fired the first shot, with Pat Mullane (Wallingford, Conn.) following up his game-winner in the semis against Northeastern by jumping on a mishandled puck in the Merrimack zone and scoring midway through the first period. But the Warriors didn’t waste time in punching back, with Ryan Flanigan scoring the first of two goals just 26 seconds after Mullane’s opener.

BC took the next swing with a goal by Brian Gibbons (Braintree, Mass.), who backhanded a rebound past Merrimack goalie Joe Cannata (Wakefield, Mass.) to give the Eagles the lead with nine minutes to go in the opening period. But the Warriors again parried when Boston-born freshman Mike Collins redirected a Joe Cucci wrister past BC senior John Muse (East Falmouth, Mass.) to tie it with 24 seconds to go.

“We’re mature as a group, and we’re confident as well,” Merrimack senior Adam Ross said. “We don’t let a goal get us down ever. We know we’re a good enough team that as long as we play hard and play our game, we’re going to get that goal back.”

They traded chances with BC in the second period, and Carter Madsen had a gilt-edged opportunity with five minutes left in the period that was nullified with a timely stick lift by BC sophomore defenseman Patch Alber. The teams stayed tied as they headed into the locker rooms with 20 more minutes to play.

Seven years earlier, Dennehy, Cahoon and the Minutemen spent the second intermission of the Hockey East final figuring out a way to tie what was then a 1-0 game, which they did before falling 2-1 to Maine in the third overtime. This time, Dennehy’s team had the tie score, and were looking for a way to take the lead.

That solution never arrived. Tournament MVP Cam Atkinson (Greenwich, Conn.) scored the first of his two goals at the 9:41 mark of the third, and although Flanigan’s second goal brought the contest back to a draw with 6:28 to go, Atkinson couldn’t be denied. He blasted a one-timer slap shot off a feed from Patrick Wey, blistering it over Cannata’s shoulder to give the Eagles the last lead they’d need.

A deflected Brian Dumoulin (Biddeford, Maine) shot made it 5-3 with 1:36 to go, and the Eagles marched to their 10th Hockey East crown, a league record.

Dennehy, a 1987 BC alumnus, didn’t exactly take any joy from his alma mater’s victory, but he wasn’t inconsolable, and neither were his players. Flanigan and Ross appeared almost defiant in their frustration after the game. Theirs were not the faces of young men just happy to be playing a big game with a program that only four years earlier had amassed only three victories. No, they were visibly frustrated, fully aware that the game was never out of their reach.

“I thought we had a chance tonight,” Dennehy said. “I don’t think the moment was too big for us. We were ready to win a championship tonight; we just weren’t good enough.”

The Warriors’ ascension happened on a highly accelerated schedule. Where the Minutemen of 2004 had gone to the Garden a year before and gotten a feel for the big-city barn’s bright lights, Merrimack last season fell to Boston University in the quarterfinals, never getting a test run on Causeway Street. That team’s lasting image was then-freshman phenom Stephane Da Costa petulantly slamming a door behind the bench after being handed a game misconduct late in Game 3.

Where that team may have not been mature enough to find its way to the Garden, this year’s squad played very much like it belonged.

“I was texting back and forth with my brother before the Maine series, and he came up with the line, ‘Cinderella died last year,’ ” Dennehy said after the final. “I’ve been talking to (former BU and U.S. Olympic great) Jack O’Callahan (Charlestown, Mass.), who I’ve gotten to know through ‘Toot’ Cahoon, and Jack talked about how a lot of teams have to get there first to get a taste of it before they can succeed. We didn’t have that luxury. Last year was our learning experience, and I thought we put it to good use.”

The Warriors’ 2010-11 season didn’t end amid the shower of maroon-and-gold equipment as the BC players flooded the ice to celebrate the program’s fourth league title in five years. Merrimack moved on to the NCAA tournament for the second time since joining Division 1 in 1984, and the first since the 1987-88 season.

The minutes and hours after losing the league title, particularly one that was at times just a few fortunate inches away, weren’t the best time to reflect on how far Merrimack has come since Dennehy took over in 2005-06. Yet Ross was able to recognize that this has been a special year for a program that until now hasn’t had many of them.

“It is something that when we were brought in here, this was obviously a goal we had, and we were able to take the program to this point,” Ross said. “So it is exciting to get to this game and obviously we want to win it. I think it was big for the team. A good thing for the program and the school also. Obviously, we are happy about getting to this point.”

And if the trend holds in North Andover, the Warriors may soon find the Garden to be a much more familiar place.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com