When the Hockey East preseason coaches’ poll was released in late September, Merrimack was selected to finish eighth with 38 points, 52 fewer than first-place pick Boston College.
The principal reason for that was the loss of goaltender Joe Cannata, who had been the Warriors’ backbone.
However, one person who had full confidence in the netminding corps was coach Mark Dennehy. Turns out, Dennehy was right.
Merrimack (14-10-6 overall) is atop the Hockey East standings with a 12-6-3 record, 1 point ahead of the Eagles. But there is nothing to celebrate yet, given that only 5 points separate first from sixth place.
“We’re excited,’’ said Dennehy. “These are things we’ve talked about competing for and we’ve put ourselves in a position this late in the season to compete for a championship and home ice. We’ve already made the playoffs. This is what we wanted; now we have to perform.’’
Although the expectations are always high for BC, Boston University, and New Hampshire, Merrimack has had to fight hard for respect. Dennehy doesn’t mind if others look past his program.
“I have no problem with them underestimating us,’’ he said. “The only opinions I care about are the ones in our locker room.
“When people say that, it’s just fuel for the fire. I understand why. It’s been a long time since Merrimack has been a contender for much in Hockey East, but I get it.”
Last Friday, the Warriors rallied to beat BC in overtime, 2-1, and did a good job corralling the Eagles’ skating game.
“I thought it was a well-played game,’’ said Dennehy. “They’re going to get their chances because they’re a good team. We work hard to limit them. I thought we did a good job limiting second and third chances.
“We’re making some plays now. [The Eagles are] a darn good team and they’ve been playing at this level for a long time. They are used to competing for league championships. We need to make sure that we come ready to go.’’
The teams are scheduled to square off again Sunday afternoon, with the season series on the line.
“There is still a long way to go, and that’s one of the things we learned last year from being rated No. 1 for that short amount of time,’’ said Dennehy. “We have six games left and four in eight nights starting on Sunday. We go BC, BU and [then two against UMass-Lowell].
“This could be a completely different conversation 10 days from now. We have to make sure that we take care of business.’’
Dennehy said a fair word to describe his team is “scrappy.” The Warriors play with determination and grit.
“We’re hard-working, fast, disciplined,’’ he said. “I think one of the things we’ve done a good job on is we understand when we’re on offense and when we’re on defense. The ability to recognize that before your opponent can help you play faster as well.’’
Defense, of course, begins in the net. Junior Sam Marotta has handled the bulk of the duties, earning a .931 save percentage and a 2.01 goals-against average.
“Sam is such a hard worker,’’ said Dennehy. “It doesn’t surprise me, I’m happy for him.
“Sam’s been on a tear of late. Coming into this year, a lot of people asked me about our goaltending. I think they thought I was full of baloney when I said I thought it would be a strength for us this year.’’
Another area where the Warriors are strong is leadership, starting with junior captain Jordan Heywood.
“There aren’t many like him,’’ said Dennehy. “Not only does he set an incredibly high standard for himself, but he isn’t afraid to hold his teammates accountable.’’
With six games left, the goal is to finish strong. The Warriors have their fate in their own hands.
“I think our internal expectations have definitely risen,’’ said Dennehy. “You don’t have to go much further than the coaches’ poll to recognize that other people’s expectations for us aren’t necessarily in line with ours.
“I think a lot is yet to be determined about this team. We put ourselves in this position. Now let’s see what we can do with it.’’
It’s going to be a key weekend for No. 12 UMass-Lowell and No. 13 BU, who square off in a home-and-home series beginning Friday. BU is 11-4-0 in their last 15 meetings, but the Terriers have lost the last two, including the first meeting of this year Jan. 19. BU has had a very strange season. The Terriers started out winning 10 of their first 15. The second semester has been a very different story. In their last 13, they are just 4-7-2. The River Hawks, on the other hand, are surging with a 12-2-1 record in their last 15 games . . . It took 17 league games before No. 1-ranked Quinnipiac lost a game in ECAC play. St. Lawrence was the source of the blemish with a 2-1 decision last Friday. The Bobcats rallied with a victory over Clarkson Saturday, improving to 22-4-4 overall and 15-1-2 in league games . . . This is a critical weekend for Northeastern. The Huskies are last in Hockey East with 13 points but are just 2 points out of a playoff spot with two games against Providence this weekend. The Friars are tied for fourth in the league with BU but have just one win in their last five outings (1-1-4). The Huskies are 2-6-1 in their last nine.