October 27, 2011

Hockey East Journal: Merrimack's recipe still a tasty one

by Andrew Merritt

Merrimack goalie Joe Cannata (photo: Dave Arnold Photography)

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – Let’s say you’re making a cake.

The last time you made the cake, it was a hit – everyone at the party loved it, even if they didn’t expect much when they first looked at it. This time around, you’re going to have to do it without three of your most important ingredients.

This cake probably doesn’t have a chance of standing up to the original, right? Well, don’t tell that to the Merrimack Warriors. Four games into the season, Merrimack has four wins, including victories over Hockey East foes Maine and Northeastern, and the Warriors are sitting in second place behind Boston College heading into a two-game set at Vermont.

What’s more, they’ve scored one more goal each time out, starting with a 2-1 victory at Maine to start the year, and most recently beating UConn 5-0 Saturday at home. Their 14-4 overall scoring advantage over their four opponents thus far is even more impressive when you remember that the Warriors are playing without the top three scorers on last year’s team.

French import Stephane Da Costa brought his sure-handed, quick-thinking ways to the pro ranks after two years in North Andover, and has seen regular time with the Ottawa Senators. Chris Barton and Joe Cucci are both in the ECHL after graduating in the spring. Those three players took 42 goals and 77 assists – more than 30 percent of the Warriors’ total points – out the door with them after a 2010-11 season that saw the Merrimack program reach its greatest heights since moving to Division 1.

The expectation was that Merrimack would need some rebuilding time, at least early in the season as it identified who, collectively, would fill those shoes. But coach Mark Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.) and his charges seem to be pretty quick learners, and while they might not have a player with the explosive potential of a Da Costa on their roster anymore, the Warriors still have a blueprint for making things work, and it’s been on target so far.

Offensively, it’s unlikely that any one skater will fill Da Costa’s shoes. Then again, senior Ryan Flanigan was just 11 points off of Da Costa’s 45-point total last year, and Jesse Todd was only three points further back, in fact leading the 2010-11 Warriors with 17 goals. Add in Boston native Mike Collins, now with a full year under his belt after scoring 14 goals and 16 assists as a freshman, and there’s still gold to be mined in the Mack Attack.

That said, the Warriors don’t necessarily need to replicate their offensive output from last year, in which they were second-best in the league in goals per game, to be successful again. As they showed Friday night in a 4-1 win over Northeastern, they just have to stick to the fundamental game plan they have in place.

“They don’t keep time of possession in hockey, but for us it’s a big stat; we want to keep the puck below the tops of the other team’s circles,” Dennehy said. “If you think about it, you cycle the puck a couple of times, you’re in your zone 20-30 seconds, you’re really expending a lot of energy, and it’s tough to get the puck and go on offense.

“So what usually ends up happening is they get the puck, gain the line, dump it and change, which doesn’t enable them to get on the forecheck. So if you do a good job of getting the puck down low and cycling it, it’s going to be tough for the other team to get in a rhythm.”

The numbers bear out how much time Merrimack had with the puck in Friday’s 4-1 win, as the Warriors outshot Northeastern 47-28, including a whopping 17-8 advantage in the first period. And as the game progressed and the beleaguered Huskies started looking for a physical edge, the Warriors were nearly perfect in keeping their cool. That discipline manifests itself in not returning a slash to the legs, in hitting the deck to block a shot on the penalty kill, and in winning the dozens of puck battles that end up being perhaps the most important edge other than the score itself.

“Just stay calm, play the game, play hard and play smart,” Collins said. “That’s what we try to go out and do.”

They’ve done it well so far, and with a No. 9 ranking four games in, the cake certainly doesn’t seem to be lacking for any missing ingredients.

Game of the Week

Providence at Maine, Friday

The Friars are the early sensation for sure, but a hot start can be doused quickly in this league, and this should be a good challenge for the up-and-comers.

Maine, meanwhile, is looking to get untracked after a sluggish opening to the season, and some home cooking could be the trick – especially in venerable Alfond Arena.

Hockey East power ratings

1. Boston College (5-1-0, 3-0-0 HEA) – The defending league champions and No. 1 team in the nation rolled through a pair of wins over UMass and Northeastern, with Needham, Mass., native Bill Arnold picking up three goals, including both game-winners. The sophomore’s second clincher of the weekend came in overtime against the Huskies.

2. Merrimack (4-0-0, 2-0-0) – A 10-goal advantage over their four opponents thus far has the Warriors looking like they picked up right where they left off from last season, and their 4-0 start is the program’s best since 1993-94.

3. Maine (1-2-1, 1-1-0) – The Black Bears were idle over the weekend, and the hope in Orono has to be that the early-season “bye week” will give them a chance to get some things figured out ahead of a two-game set against upstart Providence.

4. Providence (2-1-1, 2-0-0) – No need to break up the Friars just yet, as they took their first loss of the season Friday, albeit to defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth. Providence is one of only three Hockey East teams currently in possession of a winning record.

5. Boston University (2-2-0, 1-1-0) – There are probably some people on both ends of Commonwealth Avenue who would place the No. 12 Terriers even lower than this after an embarrassing loss to Holy Cross Saturday night, and another performance like that from notoriously slow-starting BU will probably give those folks their wish.

6. Northeastern (1-3-1, 1-3-1) – It was a fruitless weekend for the Huskies, who happened to play back-to-back games against the league’s top two in Merrimack and BC, but they saw the emergence of freshman Joe Manno, who scored a pair against the Eagles on Saturday.

7. UMass-Lowell (2-1-0, 0-0-0) – The idle River Hawks get back at it with a home-and-home against BC this weekend, which is a heck of a way to start the league slate.

8. Vermont (1-1-0, 0-0-0) – The Catamounts finally got their season started over the weekend, and split a pair of games at No. 8 Minnesota, recovering from a 6-0 drubbing to skate out of Minneapolis Sunday with a 5-4 win highlighted by two-goal games from Connor Brickley (Everett, Mass.) and Sebastian Stalberg.

9. UMass (1-2-1, 0-2-1) – Nobody seems to be able to get out of the way of BC this year, and the Minutemen were the latest cannon fodder for the Eagle offense. They do have a chance to jump on a vulnerable BU team in a home-and-home this weekend.

10. UNH (0-4-1, 0-3-0) – The good news was that Saturday’s game wasn’t a loss; the bad news is that it was just a 3-3 tie at St. Cloud State. But UNH finally comes home for a stretch after starting with four of five on the road, and a win over defending ECAC champion Union Friday or Northeastern on Saturday could certainly turn the depleted power’s fortunes around.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.