January 13, 2011

Hockey East Journal: Merrimack builds ice advantage

Junior Jesse Todd was one of 12 Merrimack players to record a point in the Warriors' 7-1 victory over Maine. (photo: Merrimack College Athletics)

The first step for a team pulling out of the doldrums of mediocrity is to simply start winning games. But next comes the question of whether a team can win big games, the season-makers that either spark a rising squad on to a winning campaign or prove the roadblock that brings it crashing back to earth.

Merrimack has been asked that question a few times this season, and Saturday was the most recent — and most resounding — answer.

Asked what his team’s 7-1 steamroller of a victory over Maine meant Saturday afternoon, Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.) cited no greater a New England sports deity than the quarterback with the flowing locks and golden arm who plays a few dozen miles to the south.

“To quote Tom Brady, who I’m sure got it from Bill Belichick, ‘This gives us a chance to achieve the goals we want to achieve,’” Dennehy said. “That’s all it does, just gives us a chance. Obviously, if we were in 10th place, home ice would be a distant thought.”

More specifically, he was referring to what the win did for his team. The Warriors vaulted past the Black Bears in the standings with the drubbing, putting them in fourth place with 14 more league games to play. There may not be any medals for fourth place, but in Hockey East, it’s a vital position to find oneself, just on the right side of the dividing line between teams that will play their best-of-three quarterfinal series in their home arenas and teams that will have to get on a bus.

It would be somewhat poetic for the Warriors, long a Hockey East also-ran, to finally play their first home playoff series in a year when their barn, Lawler Arena, has undergone major renovations. With comfortable seatback chairs in place of the older-than-old-school wooden benches in the stands, as well as a sparkling new press box and club section, Lawler is a happening place to be in North Andover. Saturday’s sellout was the fourth of the season, and the first since the rejiggered seating brought capacity to a cozy but fiercely loud 2,489.

The appropriateness of bringing a playoff series to the newly polished old building is not lost on the players.

“We want to make sure we have a chance at the end of the year to get home ice for the playoffs, because we know not many teams like coming in this building, with the new seats as well,” said junior Jesse Todd, one of 12 Merrimack players to pick up a point Saturday. “It’s going to be even tougher; the crowd’s going to be into it. We work toward it every day.”

The offensive explosion came in front of a crowd that made Todd’s words ring true.

The Warriors have another chance to move up in the standings Tuesday, when they play a rescheduled game against third-place Boston University.

The 7-1 victory tied the biggest offensive output by a Merrimack team under Dennehy’s tenure — a mark set just a few months ago against UConn in the first game of the year at the then-half-renovated Lawler Arena — and was enough of a margin to bring Bridgewater, Mass., native Sam Marotta into goal for the second time all season after Joe Cannata (Wakefield, Mass.) went down awkwardly in the third period.

With a ceiling that seems to sit right on top of spectators’ heads and the feel of a chilly, hostile place for those wearing the wrong colored jerseys to be, Lawler might just prove to be the worst place for a visiting team to end up in two short months when the league playoffs begin.

NEHJ Player of the Week

Paul Thompson, sr., UNH

The Derry, N.H., native led his hometown team to a four-point weekend with four goals and two assists, including his second hat trick of the season in Friday’s 5-2 win over UMass-Lowell. He was also a plus-four over the two games against the River Hawks and UMass.

Looking Ahead

UMass at UMass-Lowell, Friday; UMass-Lowell at UMass, Saturday

Clashes between the two sister schools always have a certain amount of state-school pride on the line, but with both UMasses fighting for playoff position (and the eighth-place Minutemen three points ahead of the last-place River Hawks), the weekend home-and-home set could be crucial as the league starts to stratify.

Around Hockey East

Boston College

Brian Dumoulin (Biddeford, Maine) showed no signs of fatigue in his return from the World Junior Championships, and his goal and three assists in the Eagles’ pair of wins over the weekend pushed him to 10 points (1 goal, 9 assists) over the last five games.

Boston University

Sunday’s game against Vermont saw the Terriers overcome a deficit to win for the seventh time this season. Last season, they had just five come-from-behind victories. … Sophomore Alex Chiasson already has bested his scoring output from last season, with eight goals and 12 assists.

Maine

The seven goals surrendered to Merrimack on Saturday were the most Maine has given up all season, and it was the first time the Black Bears have lost after scoring first.

UMass

The weekend’s pair of losses may have marked the nadir of a woeful season in Amherst. In addition to the records set (see Northeastern below), the four goals UMass allowed to the Huskies in the second period Friday were the most scored by any opponent in a single period this season, and Saturday’s loss to UNH put the Minutemen on a five-game slide, their longest winless stretch of the season.

UMass-Lowell

Though the River Hawks lost twice over the weekend in their first action since Dec. 11 — extending their losing streak to 11 games — there were bright spots in the form of Riley Wetmore, who is seventh in the league in scoring and has five goals in the last seven games, as well as freshman goaltender Marc Boulanger, who allowed only two goals on 32 shots in his ninth outing of the season.

Merrimack

The Warriors, who cracked the top 15 in both national polls for the first time ever, are one of only four teams in the country with four losses or fewer. … The seven goals scored Saturday were the most Merrimack’s scored against Maine since Jan. 9, 1979.

UNH

The Wildcats’ five game winning streak is impressive. What’s eye-popping is the 26-game run they’re on without losing to a Hockey East team at home in the Whittemore Center. The last loss at “The Whitt” came Jan. 24, 2009.

Northeastern

The three goals scored by Brodie Reid, Wade MacLeod and Steve Quailer (the last of which was the game-winner) were the fastest trio in Northeastern history, coming within a 38-second span. They were also the fastest by a Hockey East program since UMass-Lowell scored three in 24 seconds on Jan. 26, 1985, the league’s inaugural season. It was also the fastest three goals ever scored against UMass by a Division 1 opponent.

Providence

The Friars have a rough road ahead, with six straight games against teams ranked 11th or better in the nation. … Goaltender Alex Beaudry, a midseason addition his freshman year who’s now halfway through his junior season, is already 10th all-time in saves (1,940) at Providence

Vermont

Rob Madore surrendered his first full-strength goal in three games Sunday when BU’s Alex Chiasson scored 17:55 into the first period. That stretch without a five-on-five goal allowed had gone back to Dec. 18.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com