NORTH ANDOVER — When it came time for the opening faceoff, Alfred Larsson, Michael Babcock and Mathieu Tibbet looked across the red line Saturday night against Wisconsin and saw Boston Bruins first-round pick Trent Frederic, Winnipeg Jets draft choice Matt Ustaski and Ryan Wagner, who might be undrafted but has 50 points in his last two seasons.
The trio was hardly intimidated. In fact, you won’t find a line in the country that those Warriors won’t want to battle.
On the night, the Warriors held Wisconsin’s dangerous top line to one goal (on a tip that might have been high) and just seven shots at even strength.
(Ed. Note — Portions of this story will run in Friday’s Eagle Tribune)
“They got the fourth goal on a high tip, but overall they did a nice job,” said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy. “They crushed them in faceoffs. Overall they played well. We need that line to play against other teams’ big players. It wasn’t just that they were the first line, it was also because of size. Alfie and Tibbs are big boys too, so they can match up against size like that.”
At even strength, Wisconsin’s top line attempted eight shots while Babson, Larsson and Tibbet combined for 12.
The trio played a big chunk of last season together as well, and their styles compliment nicely. Babcock is the smallest of the three, but has lightning speed. Larsson, the largest, isn’t quite as fast but has been a monster on faceoffs (he’s winning 64 percent of his draws) as well as being a nuisance for opponents at the net-front. Tibbet is a blend of the two, with good size but also quick feet.
“We all know our role,” Larsson said. “We know we’re a shutdown line. I played that role in Youngstown (USHL) and in Sweden. I was never a first-line guy. We’ve all been in that position before so we know what it takes to shut down another line. We also all work hard, and I think by just working hard it takes you a long way.
“Tibbs has tremendous speed. Babs is so agile and can fly. I want to be strong on faceoffs and strong down low. I want to get pucks to them so they can fly up the wings.”
The Warriors started those three on Saturday to get the early matchup against Frederic’s line. Moving forward, it could be a pattern that develops, especially at home, where Merrimack gets the opportunity for the second change and has the luxury of seeing opposing starters before selecting their own.
Merrimack has a history of finding a good energy line and setting the tone with them early in games. Five years ago, it was the infamous Carter Madsen line with Elliott Sheen and Ryan Flanigan that would often skate to the blue line during introductions. Before that, there were times that big, heavy-hitting defenseman Kyle Bigos would start games on the wing for a shift, “just to set the tone.”
“If we think this is a line that can play against a team’s best line, well, most teams are going to start their best line so it might be that they start a lot to get that matchup right away. We might get to that point,” Dennehy said.
Larsson and his brother, Ludvig Larsson, are also Merrimack’s two best faceoff players through three games. Alfred is 32-18 on the season (64 percent) while Ludvig is 33-15 (68.8 percent).
“My brother and I are very competitive, so after every practice we compete against each other taking faceoffs,” Larsson said. “We’ll take 20 faceoffs. A lot of other centers saw that and now we’re a group of 4-5 guys competing. That’s great. All of us are competing and we’ll all increase our faceoff percentage.”
Larsson said that teams in Sweden start to calculate faceoff percentage on stat sheets around U16, so players knew their percentage and if it was part of their game that needed work. The country must be doing something right. Before the Larsson brothers dominated the dot for the Warriors, Hampus Gustafsson was usually a fixture at the top of the faceoff percentage chart.
“When you have the statistics you know if you need to get better and if you need to work on it,” Larsson said. “If there is a stat on it, you can visualize it and see if you need to get better. My dad was a center, so I think he gave us some advice too. It all comes down to timing, strength and skill.”
Larsson, who is 6-foot-5, has also been a presence for the Warriors in front of the net. Saturday, he barely missed a goal when Wisconsin goalie Kyle Hayton miraculously spun around and snatched the puck in his glove while his back was turned.
“I saw the net was open, then he just flew around and caught it behind his back,” said Larsson. “I just shook my head. Sometimes you score, sometimes you don’t.
“The bigger you are the more mass you have. if you’re bigger it’s obviously harder to move you. But going to the net is also mentality. You need to want to put yourself there.”
Last week may have been Homecoming Weekend at Merrimack College, but this weekend will serve as a legitimate homecoming for one Warrior.
Merrimack senior captain Jared Kolquist is from Hermantown, Minnesota, which is just a couple of miles from Minnesota Duluth’s campus. Kolquist played four varsity seasons at Hermantown High School and was all-conference as a junior and senior while also being named to Team Minnesota those two seasons.
As as a senior at Hermantown, Kolquist was selected to the Duluth Area All-Star Game and was named All-State by the Associate Press. His 118 career points set a Hermantown High School career record for defensemen.
“We try to setup games against teams who are close to the hometowns of some of our players who aren’t from here,” Dennehy said. “Non-conference games happen for a number of reasons. We’re trying to get games close to where some of our guys are from, but also I usually like the coaching staff, and that plays a big part. The other part is you want to bite off a little more as your program grows. I knew we would have a veteran team this year. Duluth is a really good team and it will be a tough challenge, but our guys are ready for it. They want to play against the best.
“UMD’s coaching staff are three of the best guys in college hockey. They’re super guys and their teams are well coached.”
Kolquist’s former high school teammate, Jared Thomas, is a senior forward at UMD.
Not looking too far ahead, Dennehy also acknowledged that success against teams like UMD and Denver, which is coming up later in the schedule, could help Merrimack’s potential Pairwise hopes at the end of the season.
“We need to win some of these games,” he said. “Opponents like this get us ready for league play, but we need to win these games to get some help in the RPI. Our guys are ready for it.”
Minnesota Duluth will return to Merrimack for a two-game series in the 2019-20 season (the Bulldogs have a conflict next year), which means the Warriors will have UMD and Wisconsin on the 2019-20 home schedule.
Bulldogs Ready to Welcome Warriors
Merrimack and UMD have only played once, on Dec. 28, 2000, as part of holiday tournament in Duluth. That game came in UMD head coach Scott Sandelin’s first season behind the Bulldog bench.
“They have some very good players, they skate hard and they compete,” said Sandelin. “They have had the puck a lot in their first three games, I think we’re four and five in possession. For us, it’s really more about coming out and trying to play the way we need to play.
“They do some different things on the power play, so that will be an adjustment for us and some feeling out process.”
Good Signs on the Power Play
Despite scoring just one goal on 16 chances, there are reasons Dennehy is optimistic about the Warriors’ power play.
Merrimack is attempting 4.0 shots per power-play chance, which is second best in the country behind only Mercyhurst (4.17), and the Warriors have had a tougher schedule according to the KRACH and Pairwise rankings.
While it’s an incredibly small sample size, the data still suggests that Merrimack is generating a lot of chances with the man advantage.
Last season, when Merrimack’s power play struggled mightily at the beginning of the season, the Warriors were attempting less than 2.0 shots per power-play chance.
“The end result is that you want to score goals,” Dennehy said. “The way I think we’re going to do it is by putting pucks on the net with a good net-front presence and outnumbering teams in front of the net. I’m happy with our net-front presence. On video, we went through all of our chances 5-on-5 and 5-on-4, and the reality is we’re missing some pretty good chances. College hockey is a short season, but I’m confident that statistically it will come around and those chances we’re just missing will turn into goals.”
Dennehy said that the feeling within the Merrimack locker room is, on the power play and offensively, this team is way ahead of where last year’s team was at this point in the season.
Merrimack is 0-2-1 this season with four goals scored. Last year’s team was 0-3 through three games with just two goals, and that included games against weaker teams, including Sacred Heart.
The 2016 Warriors broke out on the third weekend (this weekend), scoring nine goals in a two-game sweep of Colgate at Lawler Arena and it sparked a four-game unbeaten streak.
“Right now, we’re way ahead of where our power play was at this point last year,” Dennehy said. “We’re on a faster path than last year. One of the players said that last year, it took us a while to realize we could play with good teams. Well we’re three games in, and I think we’re confident that we can play with anybody. It took us a while to get some goal scoring, even though we had good overall numbers last year, but I think that scoring is going to come faster. It’s not going to be the last 10 games of the season.”
Stepping on the Gas
Dennehy has said since the preseason he wants the Warriors to play faster, and so far the implementation of that new style has gone well. Merrimack has great possession numbers (fourth-best in the country at even strength) and the Warriors are peppering opposing goalies with shots.
However, the Warriors still, and will always, pride themselves on defense.
“We want to play fast, but we also need to realize that when teams try to take that away, we can’t force it,” Dennehy said. ” I thought in the third period (against Wisconsin), granted we were down three goals, we were trading chances which is not a game we want to get into, even though we had to at that point. The guys have adjusted to playing faster really well.
“One of the reasons we build our teams to defend is because goal scoring comes and goes. I don’t care who you are. When it gets playoff time, there are no 5-1 wins. It’s 3-2, 2-1, 1-0. We want to be good in those games. I’ll take a 5-1 win, don’t get me wrong, but not at the expense of flipping pucks around and trading chances.”