February 16, 2013

Hockey East Journal: Warriors finding code for success

By Andy Merritt

Junior defenseman Jordan Heywood has three points in the last two games for the Warriors. (Photo: Merrimack Athletics)

When Merrimack went to the Hockey East final in 2011 – for the first time in the program’s history – the Warriors scored a boatload of goals and played a hard-hitting game that put them in the penalty box way more than any other team in the league.

These are not those Warriors.

Quietly, stealthily, Merrimack has crept up from the middle of the pack to move into second place in Hockey East heading into this weekend’s games against Boston College and Providence. The Warriors are tied with New Hampshire with 24 points apiece, just one point behind the first-place Eagles. When the new year began, Merrimack was tied for sixth, 10 points behind BC and hardly a part of the discussion when it came to the Hockey East title race.

Not only are they in the discussion now, they’re at the top of it after beating Boston College Friday night to take over first place.

“I think if you look at our second half, and take the (Jan. 26) 6-2 UNH [loss] out of it, we’ve played consistently hard most nights,” coach Mark Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.) said. “When we Lost to Union (Dec. 30), we were up 1-0, and had to kill a lot of penalties. If you look at all those games, we played hard.”

The charge to the top has come from strong, disciplined play, and from the emergence of one of the league’s best goaltenders, junior Sam Marotta of Bridgewater, Mass. Marotta and sophomore Rasmus Tirronen spent the first half of the season alternating starts, and while neither of them put up any stinkers, neither of them emerged as a true No. 1 netminder, either.

That ended with the Warriors’ 6-0 victory over Maine on Jan. 12. Marotta posted a 30-save shutout in that game, and has started all seven games since. He’s got the league’s best goals against average (1.73) and save percentage (.942) over that stretch, and most importantly, the best winning percentage with a 6-1-1 record. The middle digit in that record represents the 6-2 loss to UNH, in which Marotta surrendered six goals on 28 shots in the only stumble the Warriors have had over the past month. The next time out, Marotta stopped all 25 shots in a 1-0 shutout of UMass-Lowell on Feb. 1.

“It wasn’t something where we said ‘we’re going to make him the No. 1,’” Dennehy said. “He elevated his game, and it would be stupid for us not to play him. Sam’s been playing great, and I think he summed it up best after the 6-2 loss to UNH. After the [UMass-Lowell] game the next week, he said, ‘well, we lost 6-2, and I watched the game, but I cleaned the slate mentally.’ So he knows he’s still competing for that No. 1 job. I think that helps to drive him.”

Marotta’s season-long 2.08 GAA is also the best in the league. But it’s not just goaltending that’s sparking the Merrimack surge. Over that same eight-game stretch, junior Mike Collins (Boston) leads all Hockey East skaters with 13 points on six goals and seven assists. The Warriors lead the league in plus-minus over those eight games as well. And more recently, the second line of Clayton Jardine, Shawn Bates and Josh Myers has combined for 10 points (three goals, seven assists) over the last two games.

The Warriors have also improved their discipline this year, averaging the second-fewest penalty minutes per game in the league (11.96). Over the last four weeks, they’ve even improved on that, with an average of 11.25 penalty minutes per game. Last year, Merrimack led the league with an average of 20 penalty minutes per game.

Senior defenseman Kyle Bigos averaged 3.68 minutes in the box per game, and through the first half was averaging a whopping 4.45 PIMs per game. But since Dec. 30, Bigos is only in the box for an average of 2.73 minutes per game – no small feat for a hard-nosed defenseman who has often had trouble keeping his considerable size (6-5, 235 lbs) in check.

“I do think our skill from top to bottom has improved, so we have the puck more,” Dennehy said. “We’ve got a guy in Kyle Bigos that I think was still learning how to play at this level without taking penalties. He’s been incredibly disciplined over the last 10-12 games, and I’m incredibly proud of him for it. Some of it is the makeup of our team, and some of it is we’re erring on the right side of the line.”

Player of the Week

Jon Gillies, fr., Providence

It’s hard to figure which of Gillies’ performances was better – Wednesday’s 37-save shutout of New Hampshire, or the 41-save performance a few days earlier that had more blemishes on the scoresheet, but saved a crucial point for the third-place Friars in a 3-3 tie with the second-place Wildcats.

Power Rankings

  1. Boston College (17-7-2, 12-6-1 HEA) – BC only played one game last week. It doesn’t even count in the league standings. So what’s the big deal? Oh, right, it earned the Eagles their fourth-straight Beanpot title, the first time the program has ever gone on such a tear in Boston’s beloved tournament.

  2. Merrimack (13-10-5, 11-6-2 HEA) – For all the defensive work the Warriors have focused on this season, which has them averaging a shade over 30 shots on goal per game, they went a little nutty in Sunday’s win over UMass, pumping 41 shots on the Minutemen’s net in a 4-2 victory.

  3. New Hampshire (16-8-3, 11-7-2 HEA) – While points are at a premium in a hyper-competitive Hockey East race right now, the Wildcats could’ve used more breathing room from their two-game set against Providence, coming away with just a point from Sunday’s draw after struggling to solve freshman goaltender Jon Gillies.

  4. Providence (11-10-6, 9-6-5 HEA) – It’s one of those little signs of a program on the rise: The Friars’ three-point week against UNH gave them, at worst, a series tie with the Wildcats – the last time PC took the season series against UNH was 1995-96.

  5. UMass-Lowell (14-9-2, 8-8-2 HEA) – The River Hawks ended up idle over the weekend after their game against Boston College was postponed to Feb. 26 due to the blizzard. Whether the 12-day layoff between Feb. 3’s loss to Maine and Friday’s game at UMass is a good thing remains to be seen.

  6. Boston University (13-12-1, 10-8-1 HEA) – The Terriers entered the Beanpot consolation game with only the loosest of grips on an at-large spot for the NCAA Tournament, and the 7-4 loss to Harvard all but ended those hopes, barring a win streak to end the regular season that would, at this point, be pretty unexpected for downtrodden BU.

  7. Northeastern (8-14-3, 4-11-3 HEA) – Freshman Kevin Roy became the second rookie to win Beanpot MVP honors, a year after Johnny Gaudreau won the award in 2012. Roy is also the fifth player from a losing team to win the tournament’s MVP award, and the first since BU’s Sean Fields in 2004.

  8. UMass (10-13-2, 7-10-1 HEA) – The Minutemen played just one game in 14 days before Sunday’s rescheduled tilt against Merrimack, so there might have been a little rust in their skates as the Warriors beat coach Mark Dennehy’s old employer, 4-2.

  9. Vermont (8-14-4, 5-10-4 HEA) – The Catamounts became the first team to beat Maine since Merrimack on Jan. 19, and more importantly moved ahead of the Black Bears in the standings and guaranteed the head-to-head tiebreaker should the teams be deadlocked at the end of the season.

  10. Maine (8-15-5, 4-10-5 HEA) – Maine’s Feb. 9 game against Vermont was one of the few on the Hockey East schedule that wasn’t wiped out by last week’s blizzard, and the Black Bears might wish it was, after surrendering three goals over the course of 8:18 and taking just 19 shots on Brody Hoffman’s net in a 3-0 loss.

Andy Merritt can be reached at amerritt@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @a_merritt.