NORTH ANDOVER — There’s no questioning the growth of the Merrimack College women’s hockey team in just its second year as a program. Jumping right into Division I play in Hockey East last season, the Warriors were the one team in the league that missed the conference playoffs. This season, the goal of the team that’s made up of mostly freshmen and sophomores, was to make the postseason. Thanks to a 3-2 come-from-behind win over Vermont last Saturday, coupled with Boston University beating Maine last Sunday, the Warriors are in the tournament and will open the Hockey East quarterfinals today (2 p.m.) against top-seeded Boston College at Kelley Rink.
(Ed. Note — This story also appeared in Thursday’s Eagle Tribune)
The growth for this program has been undeniable. Merrimack more than doubled its win total from last season, both overall and in Hockey East play. The Warriors tied top-10 Quinnipiac twice and also beat a strong Yale team to win the Nutmeg Classic, giving the program its first regular-season tournament win this past November. The Warriors played top-seeded BC tough all three times this season, including a 1-0 loss on Jan. 13 when Andie Anastos scored with just 2:30 left in the game. The Warriors also have a win against Boston University, which is seeded third in the Hockey East tournament.
“We would have been disappointed if we didn’t make the playoffs,” said sophomore forward Paige Voight. “We knew the potential we had, and some of those games in the season definitely showed that we can play with anyone, but not making the playoffs would have been hard to take. I think it just proves to us that we are a good team and we’re growing as a program. It is clearly a step above what we did last year.”
The Warriors entered last weekend needing to hold off Maine for the last playoff spot, which needed to include the Black Bears losing to BU (if Merrimack didn’t sweep UVM) and the Warriors taking at least two points on the road at Vermont. After dropping a 4-3 decision on Friday night, the Warriors fell behind 2-0 in the first period before tying the score with a pair of late first-period goals, the first coming off Voight’s stick. Madison Morey then potted the game-winner with just 4:02 left on the clock.
“There was some celebration on Saturday, but we also knew there was a chance we wouldn’t make it,” Voight said. “The big thing I think that was causing our excitement was just coming back for that win. We knew we needed the points and we got that late goal.
“Sunday, we were all banking on BU. We actually sat in the lounge on Sunday and watched their game as a team and when BU scored, I won’t lie, we were cheering a little bit. The excitement grew from there. There was a lot of adrenaline for us at Vermont last week because it was do-or-die.”
Voight said that the Warriors will need to be strong in the defensive zone in this series against the Eagles. BC is one of the more explosive teams in the country, sitting atop the league with just five losses on the season (23-5-5). BC’s offense is ranked No. 9 in the nation and the Eagles’ power play is second in the country at 26.9 percent.
However, BC does enter this series just 2-2 in their last four games, including losses to Providence and Northeastern.
“The BC games earlier this year were high intensity,” Voight said. “There was a lot of energy on the bench and I think those games helped us know our potential, because they were close games. We were in the D-zone a lot, but both of our goalies were really strong and stood on their heads. That gave us opportunities to keep the game close.
“Offensively, when we get our chances in the zone, we need to capitalize. We need to finish the chances we have because they don’t give you a lot. I think we need to keep the communication high on the bench and on the ice and keep our energy up.”
This week, Voight said the team has prepared like they have for every other weekend this season. In reality, the Warriors have been in a do-or-die situation for most of this month.
“Our last four games have really been playoffs,” she said. “We’re used to having to perform under that pressure because it’s been that way for us, which I think is a good thing. We know what that pressure feels like. Our mindset hasn’t changed.
“The big wins and big ties we had this year just proved that we have the potential to win and compete with the big dogs. We ended up being eighth (in Hockey East) but we could have finished higher. We had potential and we gave away some games. We know we can compete with the No. 1 and No. 2 teams, so we’re confident. We know we belong there.”
Merrimack and BC open the quarterfinals today at 2 p.m. and Game 2 will happen tomorrow afternoon (Friday) at 2 p.m. The Warriors and Eagles will play a Game 3, if necessary, on Sunday night at 8 p.m.