NORTH ANDOVER — Two weeks ago, the Merrimack coaching staff sat down senior defenseman Aaron Titcomb and gave him the news. He’d be sitting out the Saturday night game against UMass after the Warriors were shutout, 4-0, by the Minutemen the previous night. It was hard to hear. But Titcomb took it in stride, discussed with the coaches what they needed him to do, and then delivered in a big way when he was inserted back into the Merrimack lineup last weekend against Boston College.
Titcomb might not have a letter on his chest, but he’s blossomed into a leader for the Warriors. He leads by example, doing the little things that teams need to be successful.
Ed. Note — Portions of this notebook appeared in the Friday edition of The Eagle Tribune
“That was tough for me.,” Titcomb said. “The coaching staff sat me down and told me that my teammates needed me to be better. I took that to heart. I don’t like being in that position but I got put in that position, so how do you respond? That’s what it’s about. The coaches asked what I needed from them and they were very supportive. I said, ‘Coach, I think it’s just something I need to take care of,’ and sure enough they gave me an opportunity this past weekend and I think I took full advantage of it. It was just my confidence. My confidence wasn’t great and there really wasn’t a reason behind it. I think I’m finally back. There will be a lot more good hockey ahead of me. I’m glad the coaching staff never gave up on me.”
Titcomb was among Merrimack’s leaders in shot blocks last weekend, but Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy said he was just as impressed with Titcomb’s ability to jump up into the neutral zone and stop zone entries before they began, batting away passes near the blue line and playing physical along the walls.
The Charlestown native has obvious size — he’s 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds — but he’s also extremely mobile and athletic.
“He was excellent this past weekend,” Dennehy said. “That doesn’t mean he played a perfect game, but he was really good. He played hard, he played with confidence and he played physical. I think he led our team in shot blocks. He played more the way of what he needs to do, which is really simple. He’s a big, strong and mobile defenseman. He skates really well for a guy his size. He can play the other team’s best players and neutralize them. … Just be good at what you do, and he did a nice job of getting back and playing the way we need him to play.”
Adding that physical element has been something that Titcomb continues to add to his game. With his size and mobility, he’ll draw the attention of NHL scouts if he continues to play the way he played this past weekend against BC. Finding a player with that combination of size and mobility is what scouts are usually after.
Titcomb’s numbers aren’t going to jump off the scoresheet, and he’s OK with that. He prides himself on being a player who is lights out on the penalty kill and in the defensive zone rather than lighting up the lamp. He’s the ultimate team player.
“I think it can be said that I’m a stay-at-home defenseman,” he said. “I can make a solid first pass. I don’t like getting scored on. I take a lot of pride in my plus-minus. I want to be very solid in my own end. I can put some points up here and there, but that’s not what I’m concerned with. I’m not going to be on the scoresheet much, but when it comes to blocking shots, killing penalties, I think I’m a guy that can do that.
“There was a lot of knocks on me growing up that I wasn’t physical enough, that I needed to use my size and my body more. I think I have been. You have to commit to it. I have a little brother and every time he touches someone he’s getting a penalty because he’s so much bigger, so you really need to learn how to be physical the right way. When you’re younger, you might back off a little bit if you’re taking penalties. With my size, I think it’s expected that I am more physical. I pride myself on not losing battles in the corners.”
Defense as deep as it’s ever been
Titcomb is part of an extremely deep defensive group for the Warriors. Merrimack has 10 defensemen on the roster, and through nine games, eight of them have seen game action; freshman Simon Loof is out of the lineup with an upper-body injury suffered over the summer.
The depth on the blue line might be as deep as it’s ever been. The team that will be the benchmark for all Merrimack teams — 2010-11 — had eight defensemen play all season. This version of the team is already at that number through nine games, and it’s because of the depth.
“It is really deep,” Dennehy said. “We have some guys there like (Biega), (Kolquist) or Kovacevic and Aaron, how many times has he not dressed? We have guys who have played a lot of minutes. It’s hard to get out there. You have to make sure you’re playing well.”
That depth creates competition during the week at practice, but it’s healthy.
“We personally believe that we have the best defensive corps in our league, if not the country,” Titcomb said. “We believe we’re that solid. You see that in practice. It can get chippy out there. Guys want to take other guys’ spots. That’s the business. But it’s healthy. It’s not letting guys get to relaxed. You have to earn your spot every day. As a group, we’re always looking at what’s best for the team.
“There’s definitely a good mix among the D. We all bring something to the table. As a whole, our depth is unbelievable. We have nine guys, and when Loof comes back, that’s 10 guys who can play and crack a lineup. It comes from a good core of guys coming back. We have a strong senior class.”
Dennehy also pointed to the team depth at forward. Every single forward has seen action in at least one game this season, which is not something most other teams in the country can say.
“This team is as deep, maybe, as the 2010-11 team even though I’m not sure we’re as good at the top,” Dennehy said. “We have guys up front at forward who aren’t playing that are capable of playing as well. You can handle it one of two ways. You can look over your shoulder and get distracted or you can look straight ahead and take care of business. When you’re doing that, you’re a lot safer.
Merrimack looks to work
The Warriors could see some shakeup in the lineup on Friday night. Dennehy said this week that he believes the Warriors, especially the wingers, need to do a better job of playing a 200-foot game. Merrimack is also looking to breakout the puck cleaner.
“We still need to do a better job of breaking out cleaner,” Dennehy said. “We’re not breaking out as cleanly as I would like.
“Our forwards need to work harder. Our defense worked their tails off. Our centers usually do a pretty good job. Our wingers need to play a 200-foot game. We don’t have a enough guys there. Our last three games our guys have played hard, they’ve played fast and they’ve competed. But it’s relative. Not all 12 forwards are playing as hard, competing as hard and working as hard. We have some guys who need to pick it up. Whether it’s being hard on the puck, hard around the net or making sure our first forward, second forward and third forward beat their guys up the ice. We need to work harder.”
The last time Dennehy referenced the need to work harder was after the UMass loss, and the Warriors shook up the lines heading into that Saturday rematch.
Bentley brings the pressure
Dennehy knows that Bentley will bring the pressure, especially offensively. The Falcons always seem to have at least one or two players who can consistently put the puck in the back of the net, from Max French the last few seasons all the way back to Brett Gensler in the mid-2000s.
“They come at you,” Dennehy said. “Ryan Soderquist was a really good offensive player, and he has a really good offensive team. They’re really good on the power play and they will attack you on the rush. They will attack you coming out of the zone, they’ll just throw a guy out of the zone. They’ll come at you with two guys in the middle of the rink and two guys in the offensive zone. They have good team speed. There’s not a lot that separates a lot of teams in college hockey. There are a couple of teams at the top, a couple of teams at the bottom and then everyone else. I would say probably 45 out of the 60 teams are in the middle, and anyone can beat anyone else.”
Merrimack and Bentley drop the puck tonight at 7 p.m.