We’re just three weekends into the college hockey season and Merrimack College is in the middle of the pack among Hockey East teams. But coach Mark Dennehy’s squad (2-3-1, 1-1-1) has faced stern tests and come away with valuable experience.
The Warriors won at Union in the season opener, lost at Northeastern, and then traveled across the continent nine days later to face Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage, where they dropped both decisions in the Goal Rush tournament.
Last weekend, the Warriors hosted Vermont, and won one and tied the other.
“After this weekend, and even in Alaska, I saw some really good signs,’’ said Dennehy, whose team has scored 19 goals and surrendered the same amount. “I think everybody sees us as a defensive team. The big concern coming into the season was who is going to stop the puck and who is going to put the puck in the net? Both are works in progress, but I like where they’re trending.’’
After relying on Joe Cannata in goal for so long, Dennehy is back to figuring out the netminding situation.
“Both Sam [Marotta] and Rasmus [Tirronen], as they scrape the rust off, show signs of what we think they can do, which is fill the net, make big saves, and most importantly, make the game-winning save,’’ said the coach.
Marotta, a junior, has the better numbers early with a .929 save percentage and 2.35 goals-against average, and secured both Merrimack wins. Tirronen, a sophomore, is 0-2-1 with a 3.63 GAA and .878 save percentage.
The top scorers thus far are junior forward Mike Collins (4-3—7) and sophomore forward Josh Myers (3-4—7).
“Up front, we have had some really well-balanced scoring,’’ said Dennehy. “Once we get the big fellow back [defenseman Kyle Bigos, who suffered a lower-body injury in the season opener], it will solidify our defense.
“We’ve got a lot to learn. The exciting part for me is I think we have a very high threshold. We’re not even close to being as good as I think we can be.’’
Dennehy said despite the arduous journey, it was worthwhile to make the pilgrimage to Alaska.
“It was a number of things,’’ said Dennehy. “First and foremost, we all like to talk about the greater good of the game, but how many of us are willing to kind of pay the price? What [Alaska-Anchorage coach Dave Shyiak and Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson] are doing out there is amazing.
“Dallas has been to the NCAA tournament and Fairbanks gave BC all they could handle [in the 2010 NCAA Northeast Regional]. If teams don’t go out there and play them, those programs go away. It’s important for all the programs to give back a little bit. Plus, it’s a great experience for our guys. How many of our guys have had the chance to go to Alaska?
“I did think it would challenge our team, especially a young team. We got up early on Fairbanks [2-0], and then gave up three power-play goals and lost, 3-2. The next night we played really well but the mistakes we made were glaring. We hung with it.
“We’ve been very resilient the first six games. We have trailed early a number of times and come back. This time of year you’re trying to find out about your team and the positives have definitely outweighed the negatives.’’
The Warriors face Northeastern in a home-and-home series beginning Friday night and Dennehy has been impressed with coach Jim Madigan’s team, particularly their fast starts in the opening 10 minutes.
“I think they’ve got a really good group of forwards,’’ said Dennehy. “They have three lines that can put the puck in the net. They’ve got a young defensive corps that every game gets a lot of experience.
“[Goalie] Chris Rawlings is a known commodity in our league. And they’re very good at home. We’ve got our hands full, but that’s good. That’s what Hockey East is all about.’’
Merrimack has seven freshmen, but Dennehy said since his upperclassmen are so strong, there is no need to rush the rookies.
“I think we’ve got a really good freshman class,’’ said Dennehy. “[Forward] Brian Christie has come in and played quality minutes. I had him on the ice in the last game in overtime with under a minute left to take a defensive-zone draw [against Vermont].
“[Forwards] Justin Hussar, Vinny Scotti, John Gustafsson, they’ve all come in an carved out some minutes for themselves. [Defensemen] Matt Cronin and Sean Robertson have been thrown into the deep end. We have more of a normal development cycle where we’re not as reliant on our freshmen to come in and have big years, but these are guys I think who, before the season is out, will be heard from.’’
Speaking of Merrimack, the campus is getting a significant makeover. The school is in the midst of a $30 million building project, $14 million of which is related to athletics. Among the upgrades are a practice rink, a merchandise area, a pro shop, and four new luxury boxes above the student section. The school is turning its 800-square-foot weight room into a 5,000-square-foot weight room. Because of an increasing interest in sports medicine, the school is adding a 10,000-square-foot training room and teaching space in that discipline. Work is expected to be completed next summer . . . In a rematch of the 2012 Hockey East championship game, No. 1 Boston College (4-1-0, 4-1-0) will travel to Maine (1-6-0, 0-2-0) for a game at Alfond Arena Friday night. Despite the Eagles winning the league title on the way to the NCAA championship, Maine won the season series last year, 2-1 . . . Canisius sophomore Matthew Grazen received stern punishment for his hit from behind on Air Force junior George Michalke, who suffered a head injury and was taken off the ice on a stretcher on Oct. 25. In addition to the one-game ban against Minnesota, Atlantic Hockey commissioner Bob DeGregorio tacked on seven additional contests, including the Feb. 15 and 16 games against Air Force . . . Provided they remain healthy this weekend, UMass senior cocaptains Rocco Carzo and Kevin Czepiel will reach the 100-career game mark on Sunday when the Minutemen travel to Conte Forum to face Boston College at 4 p.m.