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Merrimack hockey is building momentum, and the best is yet to come
Ed. Note — The following column will run in Wednesday’s edition of The Eagle Tribune
The feeling was undeniable on Saturday night. North Andover, Mass. had become a college hockey town.
Just shy of 3,100 fans packed Merrimack's Lawler Arena. The building only seats about 2,900. They were there to see one of the top college hockey teams in the nation. That's right, I said it. The Merrimack College Warriors are one of the top college hockey teams in the country.
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The Warriors enter the final weekend of the regular season with a chance to finish first in Hockey East. It's the second straight year that the Warriors enter the last weekend with a chance of hoisting the Bertagna Cup.
Northeastern is the only other in the league who can claim they've been in that situation.
Merrimack has already locked up its best Hockey East finish in the program's history, and the Warriors hit the 20-win plateau with Saturday's win over Lowell.
There are only 13 teams in the nation with 20 wins.
Moreover, the Warriors are one of just 20 teams nationally with a realistic chance of making the NCAA Tournament. Sure, they have some work to do now, but the Warriors are in the mix, and only a few of their counterparts in Hockey East can say the same.
Merrimack had one of its best D-I seasons last year. The Warriors went 19-15-1 and finished just outside of an NCAA berth.
Yet, no one gave this year's team a chance to duplicate last year's results. And, I'll be honest, they had good reasons, and I had those same reservations.
Transfers Max Newton and Steven Jandric, who solidified roles on the top line, had graduated, and Zach Uens and Declan Carlile- the team's top defensemen- signed NHL contracts. That left Zach Vinnell as the top-returning defenseman, but he left in the transfer portal to Bowling Green.
Perhaps the most significant blow came when Liam Walsh, who was penciled in as the first-line center and potential team captain on paper, transferred to Northeastern.
The Hockey East coaches picked the Warriors to finish eighth in the preseason poll. Everyone thought last season was a blip on the radar. Borek, his staff, and his players were out to prove that Merrimack would be in that top mix every year.
The Warriors won that debate.
So how did it happen?
Here are a few of the reasons.
1) The Warriors struck gold again in the transfer portal
I cover the transfer portal closely in the offseason. Not to pat myself on the back, but I cover it more closely than anyone else. I study who enters, how many players enter, the types of players who enter, who receives commitments, etc.
Without question, No team has had the success Merrimack has had in the portal, and I'm not being factitious.
Last season Newton (38 points) and Jandric (28 points) played significant roles. Newton (35 games), Jandric (34 games), and Durflinginer (34 games) played virtually every night.
This season, Ottoville Leppanen has secured a spot on the top line and has played in every game. Once again, the transfers are significant contributors and play every night. Leppanen, Will Calverley, Tristan Crozier, and Ryan Leibold have appeared in every game. Slava Demin has only missed one (this past Friday), but he was back in the lineup on Saturday.
All of the transfers are contributing in different ways. Leppanen has been on the top line with Matt Copponi and Alex Jefferies (more on them in a minute). Calverley has found chemistry with Ben Brar in a top-six role. In recent games, Ryan Leibold has been centering Merrimack's most effective line alongside Jordan Seyfert and Mick Messner.
However, Demin might be my favorite example. He started at Denver in 2018 as the top recruit in the class, and he was drafted in the fourth round by the Vegas Golden Knights and later traded to the Chicago Blackhawks.
He transferred to UMass in 2021, which was never a good fit. By the end of the season, he was off the roster. Last spring, it felt like everyone in hockey forgot who he was. At least one guy didn't, and I'll give him credit. I spoke with Josh Ciocco shortly after Demin committed, and he said, rather emphatically, that he would be a massive part of the D-corps. He said that if Demin was utilized correctly, he had an "NHL-level skill set" and could be one of Merrimack's top defensemen.
That's been the truth.
He transferred to Merrimack, has been a top-four defenseman, and should get a look as a solid two-way defenseman on an entry-level deal at the end of this season.
Merrimack's hit rate in the portal has been unmatched across college hockey. Every player they've brought in over the last two seasons has significantly impacted the program's success. They all play different roles, but they've all made significant contributions, and most importantly, they're all playing every night.
Merrimack's success in the transfer portal should only lead to more opportunities. How could it not? If you're a grad transfer and you're looking for a place to spend your final season, Merrimack should be near the top of your list. Every player that has committed to Merrimack in that situation has played virtually every game, and they've excelled.
2) Let's talk about development
The knock on Merrimack in the summer was that the grad transfers they had committed wouldn't replace the scoring lost by losing Newton and Jandric.
But that was only part of the plan.
The further development of Merrimack's own players has played the most significant role in replacing that offense.
The Warriors are the only team in Hockey East to have three forwards with at least 13 goals. Jefferies and Copponi are two of those players, and senior Ben Brar is the other (he has three goals in the last three games).
All three were original Merrimack recruits.
Jefferies hit the 40-point mark over the weekend. He became the first Merrimack player to hit that plateau since Stephane Da Costa in 2011.
Scott Borek has had a hand in developing plenty of NHL players. He recruited and/or coached James van Riemsdyk, Brandon Tanev, Jacob Bryson, Mark Jankowski, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Vincent Desharnais, Warren Foegele, Brett Pesce, and Tyce Thompson.
And those are just the players who played in the league this season.
Now, the staff at Merrimack is doing the same. It looks like Jefferies will have a chance to play in the league at some point, and Copponi went from going undrafted last season to a sure thing to get selected in the NHL Draft this season. Demin resurrected his hopes for an NHL deal at Merrimack this season, and Ben Brar, given his size and point total, also has the potential to get an NHL look when his time at Merrimack is done.
3) The goalies have been terrific
Regarding potential future NHLers, remember that the New York Rangers drafted Hugo Ollas.
Ollas and Zachary Borgiel have become a two-headed monster between the pipes. Quality play at that position was one of the most significant missing pieces in Borek's early years with Merrimack. Now, the goaltending position has become a strength.
What does the future look like?
I've been around the Merrimack program in some capacity for the last 20 years, and I've covered the daily ins and outs of the program since 2006.
There hasn't been this much buzz around Merrimack since the team went to the NCAA Tournament in 2011. In hindsight, the program wasn't able to sustain that momentum. But Merrimack, as a school, is in a different place now. The entire athletic department is Division I, and athletic success has become a staple of the Merrimack mission.
Men's basketball is the top team in the NEC, and both basketball programs will host NEC playoff games this week. Football nearly won the NEC this past fall, and men's lacrosse has started its D-I run in America East with a bang.
The crowd on Saturday night tells you everything you need to know about the momentum. The most encouraging part is that many of those fans came from the local community, and they were residents and families from Andover, North Andover, and Methuen. They were locals who were coming out to support the local team.
Tickets for Merrimack's home games have been sold out for over a month, and tickets for Saturday's game were listed on resale sites for about three times the face value.
Merrimack hockey is a hot ticket.
There are even some rumblings that further upgrades to Lawler Arena could be coming in the future. Merrimack upgraded the lighting system this year. There's talk that a new sound system could soon be on the horizon and rumblings of potential overhauls to the seating bowl and other amenity areas.
As for this season and this team, the Warriors have already clinched a first-round bye in the Hockey East Tournament. They've also clinched a home game in the Hockey East quarterfinals. The Warriors can only finish third or above, which will be their best finish ever, and they'll be one win away from the Hockey East semifinals at TD Garden in Boston.
If they do enough damage, the NCAA Tournament could be on the docket afterward.
And if you're a Merrimack fan, what has to be the most exciting part, is that
as good as the last two years have been, it seems the best is yet it come.