BOSTON — It’s been a long summer, and the Merrimack men’s hockey team is ready to get going.
After finishing last season 6-1-3 in their final 10 regular-season games, Merrimack’s season ended with a whimper in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs, falling to New Hampshire in a best-of-three series.
But that’s in the past. With a new season ahead, a strong 10-game sample size to close last year and a huge chunk of that roster returning, the Warriors are eager to prove doubters wrong.
Merrimack will open the season — sort of — with an intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday at Lawler Rink (4 p.m.) but the puck won’t drop for real until Oct. 6, when the Warriors travel to Hamilton, N.Y. to take on Colgate in the first game of a two-game series.
“I couldn’t practice (Monday) because we had Hockey East coaches meetings,” Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy said at Hockey East Media Day on Tuesday at TD Garden. “I watched a little bit at the start and it was sloppy. So I called (associate head coach) Curtis Carr afterwards, he ran practice, and I asked him if these guys were just ready to go? And I think that’s it. Most of these guys come out of junior leagues where they’re five or six games deep at this point. It’s really foolish of the NCAA to hold us until whenever they do for us to play. We should just be playing by now.”
Merrimack returns the bulk of its scoring from a team that finished in seventh place last season. In fact, the 75 percent of total offense that Merrimack brings back is the most in Hockey East. Added to that is a talented freshman class and a sophomore, Cole McBride, who was forced to sit out all of last season due to NCAA eligibility issue and looked like he could have been an impact player, even as a freshman.
Bringing back a large group of returners has meant the Warriors can hit the ground running — or maybe it’s the ice skating? — with some limited hours on the ice with coaches and captains’ practices taking place for about the last month. Merrimack is looking to build on concepts from last season, particularly what worked in the second half.
The 6-1-3 stretch for the Warriors included a sweep of Boston University. Over that 10-game span, the Warriors averaged 3.1 goals per game.
“It’s always an exciting time of the year to have everything starting up,” said senior co-captain Marc Biega. “There’s always a perception that Merrimack can’t match up with the big-time schools. We want to prove to everyone that we can be at the top of the league. (Last year against BU) was a great example of how we can be there. We know what it takes.”
“There is always room for improvement,” added senior co-captain Jared Kolquist. “The good thing about having a lot of returners is that we can build on concepts from last year and hopefully be better this year. We want to stay in the present, because it’s a short season in college hockey, so if we can do that I think that it bodes well for us. With so many returners there is a lot of familiarity, which is a good thing. The guys we have know what Merrimack hockey is all about. I can already feel like we’re all on the same page.”
Dennehy said there are positives and negatives to anything, which includes bringing back such a large group of returning players.
“The positives are that we should have a lot more familiarity with our systems, even though we’ve changed a couple of things,” he said. “But at the same time, you have to guard against complacency. We’ve been saying since last year’s banquet, but we can’t forget how hard we needed to work to have any of the successes we had last year. And, on top of that, at the end of the day it wasn’t good enough. We need to work at least as hard as we worked last year, but really, we need to work harder. If we can do that, I think we have a really good team.”
Merrimack was picked to finish ninth by the Hockey East coaches and the Hockey East Writers and Broadcasters Association had the Warriors pegged seventh in their poll. Merrimack has finished seventh in each of the last two seasons, hosting New Hampshire in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs.
Part of the Warriors mantra under Dennehy, who is entering his 13th season behind the bench, has been that they want to be tough to play against. That can mean different things for different teams.
“Every coach wants their team to be hard to play against,” Dennehy said. “For a lot of coaches, it’s for different reasons. Some coaches want to be hard to defend, others want to defend their goal mouth. Since our staff has been here in 2005, we’ve wanted to be hard to play against. We don’t want anyone — except our fans and players — to look forward to coming into Lawler Arena. There have been some years where we’ve been better at that than others.
“The best part of coaching is that every year is a new year. But also the hardest part of coaching is that every year is a new year. We need to continue to work as hard, if not harder, but I like this group. We have great leadership, and that includes some of the guys not wearing letters — Brett Seney, Aaron Titcomb, Derek Petti — and we have guys who aren’t going to let us do anything but play hard.”