NORTH ANDOVER — At the end of last season, Merrimack men’s hockey coach Mark Dennehy saw his No. 1 center, Hampus Gustafsson, graduate and sign with the Washington Capitals. The move left fairly large shoes to fill.
Dennehy turned to Tewksbury native Derek Petti to play alongside the Warriors’ two most dangerous offensive threats — Brett Seney and Sami Tavernier — and Petti responded with a goal in last weekend’s season-opening series against Colgate. Going back to last season, Petti has five goals in his last nine games.
“I think we work well together,” he said this week. “I believe my role on that line is to be responsible and make smart plays. Those two guys are really gifted offensive players, and I think what I bring in the middle is someone who can be responsible and make the right play. It’s only two games in, but we’re feeling good.”
Petti watched some of Gustafsson’s tape from last season to get a sense of what intangibles he brought to the line. Once Seney and Tavernier were paired with Gustafsson, along with some other offensive changes, the Warriors went 6-1-3 to finish the regular season and averaged more than three goals per game.
“I’m trying to look at the good things Hampus did and then emphasize that in my play,” Petti said. “I can’t replace Hampus, he’s a great player. But I want to be able to do similar things.
“Being on the right side of pucks is huge for me.”
Seney said that Petti brings the line the same physical presence that Gustafsson provided last year. Seney, who assisted on Petti’s goal last week after digging the puck out of the corner, also praised Petti’s propensity for making the smart play.
“Losing Hamp was difficult but Derek has filled that void for us,” he said. “He has finish around the net. So far we’re clicking. Derek is a very smart player and he makes the smart play. He has that touch. He always seems to find Sami and I.”
Petti’s path to Division I college hockey wasn’t exactly the traditional one. After playing for Tewksbury High School, Petti played for the Middlesex Bears, at the time a relatively unknown prep program that plays against some college club teams and prep schools.
Petti’s coach, Alex Moody, sent Dennehy film. Moody, who was formerly a coach at Shattuck St. Mary’s in Minnesota, told Dennehy in the email that Petti was a D-I caliber player.
“I don’t usually watch those videos people send because I get sent so many of them,” Dennehy said. “But when I watched Derek, he was making the right play. He was making great decisions. The biggest question we had was whether or not he could make the right play at the pace it is here. It was so slow where he was, so that decision window was big. It got shrunk a lot when he got here. But he hasn’t disapointed. He’s been a solid performer and we saw enough in his first two years that we want to put him with two of our better offensive players.”
Added Petti, “It’s not the traditional way to get to a program at this level, but I’m lucky that it all worked out. I’m here now.”
Merrimack Looks to be More Active on Draws
Colgate pounded Merrimack on the faceoff dot in the early portions of last weekend’s series, winning 18 of the first 22 faceoffs on the Friday night. But, the Warriors were able to get the numbers back closer to even by the end of the series and actually had a slight advantage over the final five periods.. The Warriors won 49 percent of faceoffs on the weekend.
“I wouldn’t say we’re happy with that area of our game,” Dennehy said. “We have some work to do. (Colgate) is a good faceoff team. They had good stick strength and their centers came in with a plan. They were jumping on draws. I was more upset about our auxiliary players just standing around. If it’s lost clean, then fine, that’s on the center. But there were a lot of 50-50 pucks that we need to work harder to get in on.”
Hennig Finds His Form
Merrimack junior winger Jace Hennig only had one assist against Colgate, but in watching video this week, Dennehy said he thought the British Columbia native was one of his team’s best players.
“He was one of our best forwards,” Dennehy said. “It’s something where him and Ludvig (Larsson) had a connection last year, so we kept them together. Nothing is written in stone (as far as lines) but those two and Brett and Sami were two pairs that we thought we could start a good line with.”
New Look Badgers
Wisconsin comes to Merrimack this weekend 2-1 on the season after splitting a series against Ohio State last week. The Badgers, who are making their first trip to Lawler Arena, will play at Boston College tonight while the Warriors have the night off.
The Wisconsin visit will be the first by a Big Ten school in Merrimack’s history. Ohio State did visit Merrimack in the 90s, but it was during the program’s CCHA days.
“Wisconsin is a good team,” said Dennehy. “They have a few special players.”
Former St. Lawrence goaltender Kyle Hayton transferred to the Badgers this offseason. He’s the only player who has previous experience playing at Lawler Arena.
“Trent Fredric (Bruins first-round pick) is a special player,” Dennehy said. “Losing Luke Kunin hurts, but Frederic has rolled right in. Hayton solidifies that position for them. They’re big, strong and fast.”