Merrimack takes the season series from UMass with road win
AMHERST — With last night’s road win over UMass, the Merrimack men’s hockey team moved up to No. 5 in the national Pairwise rankings.
It’s December. Merrimack hasn’t had a team ranked this high in the Pairwise, this late into the season, since 2012.
The Warriors cracked the top 10 in the national polls this week, but the polls aren’t what matters. The Pairwise matters. There’s still one game to go before the semester break (Saturday at Providence), and the Warriors are currently one of the top teams in the country. Moreover, they’re ranked as the best team in Hockey East.
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No, they aren’t in first place, but they’re in second place with three games in hand on UConn. Merrimack's point percentage in league games (.800) is the best in Hockey East and Merrimack is the top-ranked Pairwise team in Hockey East.
“I thought we played a very good third period,” Merrimack coach Scott Borek said. “We got through it and won a game we needed to win.”
Merrimack is in the middle of one of its toughest stretches of the season. Last Tuesday, the Warriors began a two-game series with UConn. They played UMass tonight and then they’re at Providence on Saturday. All four of those games come against teams in the top 12 of the Pairwise, and three of those games are on the road. On top of that, they all take place in a span of 11 days.
“No other team in the league is going through what we’re going through right now,” Borek said. “But, we’re finding ways to get through it. It’s a credit to our players.”
Merrimack is 2-1 in this stretch, with one more game to go on Saturday before the semester break.
Last night’s win over UMass was predictably close. Merrimack and UMass have now played one-goal games in 11 out of the last 12 meetings. The only game in that stretch that wasn’t a one-goal game was a 3-1 UMass win, that also included an empty-net goal (so it was essentially a 1-goal game).
Merrimack fell behind just 88 seconds into the game, but much as they have at various points this season, the Warriors found a way to bounce back and tied the game midway through the first period.
Merrimack had almost seven straight minutes of power-play time in the second period but didn’t score.
Then with two seconds left in the second period, Ottoville Leppanen scored the game-winning goal after he found a soft spot in the slot behind his defender, and Matt Copponi, who scored Merrimack’s first goal, fed him a puck from the wall.
“Those guys kept playing,” Borek said. “The power play was frustrating because we had chances we just didn’t score. But those guys kept playing and they kept playing through that shift as time was running out. That was a veteran play (by Leppanen) and it was a good play by his linemates to find him.:
As much as Leppanen and Merrimack’s other grad transfers (Will Calverley, Slava Demin, Ryan Leibold, and Tristan Crozier) are regular contributors in the lineup, Merrimack’s sustained success since last season is due in large part to the development of several younger players. Copponi has 16 points in 16 games, and Alex Jefferies leads the team now with 21 points. Mark Hillier, who was getting his feet wet last season, has 10 points in 15 games as a sophomore.
“The best thing about our transfers is the maturity they bring,” Borek said. “They helped us get through some situations. Sometimes what has gotten overlooked has been those guys who have been here and developed, and definitely that sophomore class.”
Copponi and Hiller - both sophomores - are among Merrimack’s top scorers. In addition, sophomore defensemen Adam Arvedson, Ivan Zivlak, and Mike Brown have helped fill the void left by Declan Carlile and Zach Uens, who the Warriors lost to NHL contracts at the end of last season.
“Those guys on D have surprised me a little bit,” Borek said. “Remember, we also lost (Zach Vinnell) in the portal and (Liam Dennison) who got hurt. I was worried about our depth back there, but those guys have stepped in, along with Demin, (Christian) Felton and two of our freshmen, and they haven’t lost anything.”
Merrimack will travel to Providence on Saturday night and then the Warriors will have almost three weeks off for the holidays before they get back to work on Dec. 30 at the Ledyard Bank Classic, a tournament hosted by Dartmouth.
Portions of this story will appear in Thursday’s Eagle Tribune
Merrimack 2, UMass 1 at Mullins Center Merrimack (12-4-0): 1-1-0--2 Massachusetts (7-6-3): 1-0-0--1 First Period: 1. UM Taylor Makar 6 (Kenny Connors, Reed Lebster), ev, 1:28; 2. MC Matt Copponi 9 (Ivan Zivlak, Alex Jefferies), ev, 10:10. Second Period: 2. MC Ottoville Leppanen 4 (Matt Copponi, Zach Bookman), ev, 19:58. Third Period: None. Shots: Merrimack 12-19-8--39; UMass 17-7-12--36 Saves: MC Ollas (59:57) 35/36; UM Pavicich (58:36) 37/39 Power Play: Merrimack 0 for 4; UMass 0 for 3 Penalties: MC 5-10:00; UM 7-25:00 Attendance: 2,797