Merrimack head coach Scott Borek, just like the rest of the coaches around college hockey, is looking forward to a more normal season after COVID-19 interrupted, and ultimately ended Merrimack’s year in the playoffs this past March.
The Warriors were playing their best hockey down the stretch (3-1-1 in their last five games). But positive COVID cases and subsequent contract tracing eliminated the Warriors from the Hockey East playoffs before it even began.
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Merrimack is set to open the season tomorrow night at No. 11 Providence (7 p.m., NESN) and will return home on Saturday night (7 p.m.) against Sacred Heart, in what will be the first home game with fans at Lawler Arena since March 2020.
“Our whole campus is vaccinated,” Borek said. “So, if someone does pop positive there isn’t contact tracing like there was last year. The positive person is removed and you move forward. Last year it was the contact tracing that created a lot of the issues with players being unavailable. You would have a player test positive but then you would have to remove other guys who never got sick, and that was the most frustrating part for everyone. The guys who were healthy might not have been able to move forward because they were around someone who tested positive. I know it was frustrating for the players, but we’re hopeful now to have a more normal year.”
Borek himself hopes to be behind the bench on Saturday. He had a family member test positive last week and he has been away from the team for precautionary reasons. He said that if he received two more negative tests this week he would be able to coach the game on Thursday.
This year’s roster will be the deepest in Borek’s tenure. He said that the Warriors have five or six forward lines they are comfortable playing, the D corps is still the strength and they have options in goal.
“Setting the lineup is a big challenge,” Borek said. “I can appreciate that we have a lot of guys who have played a lot of minutes the last few years who are now fighting for ice time. It’s good for our team, because of the compete. You need to bring it every day in practice.”
The Warriors played a closed-door scrimmage with UNH this past Saturday (they won in a shootout) and that helped shed light on lineup decisions for this week’s games.
“It gave us a much better feel on who is ready to play,” said Borek. “But I think most of our roster will play in the games this weekend. We’ll have a better idea the following weekend on who our top-12 or top-13 are, if you will.”
The depth up front will mean that the minutes can be more spread out. Borek said that the Warriors won’t be as reliant on one or two lines to score points, which should help with fatigue late in games.
“We can roll full lines,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll see us rolling the same players over the wall all the time in the same situations because we have a number of guys who can score.”
Max Newton, a transfer from Alaska, was added to the roster this past January and produced seven points in nine games. His former Alaska linemate, Steven Jandric, transferred for this upcoming season and it’s likely that they’ll be reunited. Two years ago, Newton and Jandric combined for 60 points and led the Nanooks in scoring.
The Warriors return all top-six scorers from last year, including Alex Jefferies (New York Islanders pick), who had 10 points in 12 games as a true freshman. On Saturday, Jefferies skated with Newton and Jandric.
On defense, the Warriors also return Florida Panthers draft pick Zach Uens and Borek added New York Rangers pick Hugo Ollas to the goalie room. Ollas is a 6-foot-8 netminder who was drafted by the Rangers in the 2020 NHL Draft.
Ollas will contend with Zach Borgiel, who played 15 games as a freshman last year, and Troy Kobryn. Borgiel posted a 2.71 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage over the last four games of the season, where the Warriors went 3-1-1.
Ollas is the first drafted goalie on Merrimack’s roster since Joe Cannata in 2012.
“We won’t go down the road of three goalies unless we have to,” Borek said. “It’s hard for a team to play in front of a different guy every night. I thought our team settled in behind Zach last year. The last six or eight games last year he settled in as the starter.”
Borek said the Warriors will handle Ollas differently than they handed Jere Huhtamaa, a Finnish goalie who played two seasons with the team and opted to go pro this year in Finland.
“Jere is a talented goalie,” Borek said. “The mistake we made was we put him in there right away before he got a chance to get used to North American hockey. There is more of a frenetic pace, and it’s a crease battle for every shot, which they haven’t faced before. The pace of the game on a smaller surface is a lot faster, so their tracking has to catch up. I think we’ll have the benefit of allowing Hugo to evolve and get into the game and understand the North American game because we have Troy and Zach. … Zach is the guy who walked out the starter last year, and I think he’ll probably walk into the job this year.”
After the Warriors play Providence and Sacred Heart this week, they’ll get into the meat of the Hockey East schedule almost right away. A two-game trip to Colgate is on tap for Oct. 15-16, and then the Warriors will face BU (twice), defending national champions UMass (twice) and Boston College (twice) all by Nov. 6. Those three opponents were picked in the top-three spots of the preseason poll, and Providence was picked No. 5.
“We’re going to find out right away if we can challenge the top group,” Borek said. “That’s our goal this year, to challenge that top group. It isn’t the schedule I’d prefer, because I don’t think it will give us a chance to build confidence early in situations we’d like to build confidence in, but at the same time, it’s the challenge laid in front of us. There are some really good teams in our league and we’re going to play them right out of the gate, so I am excited for that challenge.”