NORTH ANDOVER — Merrimack College took the opportunity, with a bye week in the schedule last weekend, to reflect on the first third of the regular season. The results, admittedly, not what they want, the Warriors got back to basics and took some time to heal up ahead of a five-game stretch into the Christmas break that begins tonight at Northeastern.
“Inconsistency on an individual basis as well as on a team basis,” said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy, reflecting on the first 12 games of the season. “We go from not scoring a few games in a row to scoring five. We go from playing pretty good defense, and playing in some 2-1 games, to giving up six. I still like this group a lot, and I know our best hockey is ahead of us. There are no excuses. We came into this season and we knew we had a good schedule that was going to challenge us. I think we’ve played well at times, but I still think we can play better.”
Merrimack’s “best hockey,” the last two seasons, have come in the second half. The Warriors went on a run two years ago after thrashing Arizona State at Lawler Arena and then last season, a sweep over Boston University propelled the Warriors to a long unbeaten streak.
But with just two wins in the standings, the Warriors can’t wait around.
“Those positive memories are good, but every team is different,” Dennehy said. “The reality is that we’ve hosted two out of the last three years in the playoffs, and we’ve won series in two out of the last three years in the playoffs. So this team has hosted twice, has won twice and we know what it takes to get there. We know there will be a postseason, but where do we fall in that? That’s still to be determined. It’s really early in the season in terms of our league play. Our destiny is still well in our hands, but it’s a matter of playing well.
“(The week off) is what you make of it. You want to look at it in a positive fashion, you can make something positive of it, and on the flip side, there are ways to make if negative if you want to look at it that way. To be honest, I think getting rested was big for us. We’ll get another break around Christmas time, so we should have some life over these next five games. Getting rested is big. We used it to work on some things and return to basics. It was almost like a training camp situation. We took some time off, we went back to basics, we scrimmaged and we reflected and got organized. We just right back in the deep end with Northeastern, who I think is probably the most talented team in the league. But, I feel like we used this time wisely.”
Power Play Surging
After struggling to find goals in the early portion of the schedule, Merrimack’s power play is 7 for 14 in its last three games, kicking the success rate up over 20 percent. The Warriors’ unit went from being one of the bottom in the nation to No. 15 overall and it’s the second-best power play in Hockey East, behind only Northeastern, the team the Warriors will see this weekend.
“Even before we started scoring on the power play, I really liked our puck movement and it’s only getting better,” said Dennehy. “I like our ability to break pressure. Providence pressured a lot and we were able to break that pressure. That’s good.
“The other thing is, I thought we worked really hard. There is a tendency on the power play to relax and look at it like we have an extra guy, so we can slow it down. But we want to play with tempo. Two of our goals recently on the power play have been us outworking the other team on a scrum, finding the open man and getting a guy wide open to score a goal. Those are good things.”
Huskies scoring abound
In prepping for Northeastern this week, Dennehy spoke glowingly of Northeastern’s puck skills and offensive flair. The Warriors have had strings of games where they’ve shutdown talented teams, allowing two goals or less against Boston College and Providence, but at the same time the Warriors have suffered in their own end as well, allowing four goals or more in five of 12 games.
“They have great puck skills and they have secondary and maybe even tertiary scoring,” Dennehy said of the Huskies. “They have an excellent power play. I think last year, they were the most dangerous power play we faced. Their defensemen are puck movers. It’s really about us skating, us doing a good job in the middle of the rink and not allowing them to skate pucks into our zone, and then it’s about shrinking the rink on both sides. We want to outnumber them on the defensive side so we can get the puck and breakout quickly. On the offensive side we want to get on them and shrink the rink there, gaining possession in their zone and making them work a little bit.”
Warriors hope for a traffic jam
During the week off, the Warriors charted their goals scored to this point in the season and Dennehy said that 17 of the 30 have come with a man directly in front of the net.
“Overall we’ve done a better with traffic,” he said. “We showed the guys. Listen, here it is. We scored six times on a rush but 17 goals with a guy directly in front. Having a good net-front presence is a necessity.
“Everybody has to go to the net. Everyone. If you want to score goals, that’s how you do it. If you get to the top of the goaltender’s crease, that limits his ability to get out of his crease. You can’t affect him in his crease, but out of his crease you can take space and it’s yours. By getting to the top of his crease and being respectful of it, you don’t allow the goalie to get out and challenge as much as they’d like. It also forces the goalie to work harder to find the puck.”
Merrimack and Northeastern play tonight (7 p.m.) at Matthews Arena before turning around and finishing the two-game series back at Lawler Arena on Saturday night (7 p.m.).