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Merrimack clinches home ice with win over Lowell
Ed. Note — A version of this story will appear in Sunday’s Eagle Tribune
LOWELL — Scott Borek can check off another box on his team’s checklist.
For just the second time in the history of the program, the Merrimack men’s hockey team will host a Hockey East quarterfinal game at Lawler Arena. Last night’s 5-3 win over UMass Lowell clinched that spot for the Warriors (19-12-1).
“The whole league is so tight right now the first thing you want to accomplish is getting our of the first round, which we clinched that bye last week,” Borek said. “Of course, then you want to clinch home ice and we did that today. We’re really fortunate. We feel great about being at our home rink. We have a lot of work to do before the season is over, but I like the spot we’ve put ourselves in right now.”
The Warriors should like where they stand.
After last night’s win Merrimack jumped over Northeastern into second place in the Hockey East standings. Merrimack trails BU by just one point for first place and the Warriors hold the tie-breaker against the Terriers by virtue of last weekend’s sweep.
The only other Merrimack team to earn home ice was the 2010-11 Merrimack team that advanced to the NCAA Tournamnt and came one game short of winning a Hockey East championship.
Merrimack did play at home in the quarterfinals in 1997, but the Warriors finished fifth that season and only played at home due to Maine’s suspension (they were ineligible for the postseason due to infractions).
“No one wants to come to our rink and play us, it’s that tough,” said Merrimack assistant captain Jordan Seyfert. “The whole arena makes it hard. The fans are right on top of you and they’re loud and into the game, and we’re proud of that. That’s the reason we came to Merrimack, to play in big games in front of crowds like that.”
Now with home ice solidified, Merrimack will be one home win away from advancing to the Hockey East semifinals at TD Garden in Boston. Hockey East scrapped the three-game series last season in favor of a single-elimination format.
In a related development, Saturday’s Merrimack vs. Lowell game at Lawler Arena will be the third straight sellout. The jam-packed and loud crowds couldn’t be coming at a better time.
“The guys in our ticket office have done a great job and our fans, and the members of the local community who have been coming out to support our team has been unbelievable,” Borek said. “I know I say this all the time, but we have the best band in college hockey and they really get the people excited in our rink. I’m excited for our team, to play in front of that environment, and I’m excited that we clinched home ice so that our fans can experience a playoff game inside Lawler.”
The Warriors moved up to No. 17 in the Pairwise rankings (the system the NCAA uses to select and seed teams for the NCAA Tournament). The top 16 teams in the country earn NCAA bids, but automatic bids from conference championships can cut down on the number of at-large bids available. With the Atlantic Hockey winner surely outside of the top 16, it means right now the top 15 are in qualifying positions, putting the Warriors just on the outside of the bubble.
But once the playoffs start, Merrimack will be three wins away from a Hockey East title. No matter where the Warriors finish in the Pairwise, a Hockey East championship would give the Warriors the autobid to the NCAA Tournament from Hockey East.
Despite struggles in early January, it’s starting to feel like this team could make a run.
“We know what we have to do to win games,” Seyfert said. “We had some moments where we were fighting it a little bit but we pushed through and we realized that it was just some bad bounces. If we stuck to our game we’d start to get results.”
Merrimack has never finished higher than fourth place in the league standings (2010-11) and they’re just one win away from locking up at least third place. Moreover, with just one more win, the Warriors would become only the second team in the Hockey East era of the program (32 years) to win 20 games.
The Warriors play Lowell on Saturday night and wrap up the regular season against Vermont next Saturday (March 4) before the Hockey East playoffs get underway.