In place of our weekly Merrimack Hockey Coaches Show, which was pre-empted this week, Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy sat down with The Mack Report to preview this weekend’s series with Notre Dame as well as looking at other elements of the Warriors. Portions of these quotes were used in a preview story in Friday’s Eagle Tribune.
TMR: You mention that in most cases, it’s not about changing your game plan for an opponent, but accentuating some aspects of your game. What elements do you think are important heading into a weekend with Notre Dame?
MD: “It doesn’t change much. Notre Dame isn’t as structured as they have been in the past, but they’re very disciplined, as are most Jeff Jackson teams. We need to continue to move forward with the agenda items we have identified. We need to score more goals and we need to be better on special teams.
“We took a step in the right direction on special teams (last week), we were good on the kill, we were good on the power play, and I thought maybe we should have had a couple. If we can get better on the power play, that solves some problems and your’e scoring goals for sure.
“We need to guard against gripping sticks too tight. We’ve had three games since break. The CC game we were not happy with, it was a little bit of a mess. But coming off the break, we still had a chance to win a game late in the third against a team hitting stride. The other two games, I thought we played well. Against Cornell, we had chances. I am very confident the numbers come back to the mean and getting good looks will eventually go in. We can’t grip the stick to tight.
“The game against Cornell was a bounce of the puck and it didn’t bounce our way. You earn those. Our effort Saturday and against Northern Michigan, you can build off of that for sure.”
What have been your thoughts on special teams the last few weeks? Obviously, like you said, improvements on the power play lead to more goals, which has been an issue.
MD: “It really hasn’t changed. Ultimately, you want to give your players a little structure so they know where they are, but not too much. You look at our power play, and we’ve run a similar power play with both of our groups. Everyone gets a chance to run it in practice, but we’ve kept two units together with the exception of one player. For the most part, nine out of 10 on those units have been the same, so there is some familiarity and we need to stick with it. We have two units competing with each other.
“Some of the things I think we’re doing well, particularly on the power play, is that we’re winning draws, and that gives us possession and allows us to get some loos. If I can look to a couple things that need to improve, I think we need to be prepared to shoot sooner, and we need to work on retrieval. But we’re getting looks, setting up, breaking in cleanly.”
What about on the penalty kill? I know the overall numbers are what they are, but I feel like your PK has been really good for large stretches. The beginning of the year it was great, and now after some bumps, it’s been really good recently too.
MD: “We’re trying to go deeper down our roster. We’re trying to get more guys involved. We need to be better at it and some guys weren’t doing a good enough job. Competition sometimes breeds improvement and by including more people in that, you get more attention of guys on a regular basis.
“Coach (Curtis) Carr does a good job of taking away the other team’s strength on their power play. He identifies what they’re doing, and our guys come up with a good game plan. But really, we don’t change much about what we do. When we have struggled there, we weren’t doing what we’ve practiced since the beginning of the year. So there has been a little reminder, and we’ve had some more bodies.”
Has this week changed preparation at all? I feel like I ask this every year, but having these weeks where there are no classes, the players are still on academic break, you do feel like players dial in a little more with nothing else to focus on?
MD: “We try to keep them together and do some different things. We’ll be doing some community service next week and we had a bowling tournament yesterday. There is time during the break from classes for more team bonding stuff.
“We are getting some more video done, and I’ve honed in on more individual video instead of lines or groups. And also, I’ve concentrated on more of our better players, too. A lot of times you coach to the lowest common denominator. Individually, with video, we’re paying more attention to our higher end players. You can only practice so long before you burn guys out, so our practice schedule hasn’t changed.
“We’re well aware that this is where the rubber meets the road, right here. The next eight weeks will determine our season. It’s great, this is the best time of year to play hockey. Our team is excited, and they should be.”
Any more thoughts on Notre Dame after watching them on video?
MD: “They have some good players. (Anders) Bjork is excellent. Their D is mobile. I was very impressed with them. I think they look like they’re a little … I don’t want to say looser, but they’re playing more of an up-tempo game. It’s not as tight-checking as it has been and they have the players to play that way.”