February 28, 2014

Hockey East: Last-place Warriors still have hope

By Andrew Merritt

Captain Jordan Heywood and Merrimack will look to close out the regular season on a high note when they take on New Hampshire this weekend. (Photo by Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – Forty seconds into last Friday’s game between Vermont and Merrimack, the fire alarm at Lawler Arena went off, forcing everyone in the building – fans, players, media – to be evacuated.

After the game, during which the fire alarm went off again during play later on, Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.) quipped, “It’s funny, eight years ago, I was praying for a fire to burn this place down. Now that we have this nice facility, I was hoping it wasn’t a real fire.”

The upgrades to Lawler Arena are striking, from the new seating that was installed over the course of two off-seasons, to the luxury boxes and glittering new lobby that greet crowds this year. But it’s still partially an old building, with some rickety wiring, and a sensor in a part of the building far from the renovated areas tripped twice during Friday’s game.

Bringing Lawler up to speed with the higher-end buildings in Hockey East, in other words, is a work in progress. That makes it sort of the perfect home for its hockey team.

The Warriors lost both of their games to the Catamounts last weekend, extending their losing streak to seven straight games. Merrimack enters the final weekend of the regular season in last place, and barring an unlikely sweep of New Hampshire (plus a sweep by Northeastern over Boston University), it will remain there.

What makes things different this year is that, unlike the last 19 seasons in which a team in the Warriors’ position wouldn’t make the playoffs, Merrimack’s season does not end this weekend, regardless of the results. The new alignment of Hockey East comes with a playoff structure in which every team is guaranteed at least one round of the postseason.

That’s good news for Merrimack, UMass, and BU, who all enter this weekend in positions outside the top 8 in the league, which had been the cutoff for playoff participation since the Minutemen became Hockey East’s ninth member in 1993-94. While there are arguments to be made about how the playoff structure devalues the regular season, for the squads who still have life past this weekend where they wouldn’t have in previous years, it means a chance to play at least one more meaningful game, and also to experiment.

“We have, we’ve been mixing lines a lot,” Dennehy said. We’ve had a lot of injuries, which has forced us to. That’s good at times, because we’ve gotten a look at some younger players.

“I’ve been saying this all year long, we were in the playoffs from Day 1. All that really matters is that we’re playing our best hockey in a couple weeks’ time. You win three games and you’re at the Garden. You make your season.”

That’s a big deal for a team in the process of rebuilding. Just three years ago, Merrimack was on top of the world, with a team that scored buckets of goals and made its first trip to the NCAA Tournament. The 2010-11 Merrimack team finished second in Hockey East in scoring, and racked up 25 wins – more than in any year since 1989.

The following season, Merrimack went 18-12-7, but was bounced in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs. Last year, the Warriors went 15-17-6, and even then Dennehy could see trouble brewing.

“When we got here eight years ago, we worked to change the culture of this program,” Dennehy said. “But culture’s always changing, and I thought 18 months ago that it was starting to slip away a bit. Our work ethic wasn’t where it needed to be, I didn’t think we had an understanding or appreciation as to what Merrimack hockey’s about.”

In a way, last weekend’s series could be looked at as a matchup between past and present. Merrimack in a lot of ways mirrors the path Vermont has taken over the last five years, from a Frozen Four appearance in 2009 to a sharp decline over the next three seasons. UVM went 6-27-1 in 2011-12, missing the playoffs entirely only three seasons after making its first appearance in the national semifinals.

The Catamounts have steadily climbed out of that hole. They went 11-19-6 last year, are guaranteed a winning record this season, and enter the final weekend just four points out of third place in a gridlocked playoff race. Coach Kevin Sneddon could look across the ice last weekend and see a flashback to where his club was just a couple seasons ago.

“Very similar, yeah,” Sneddon said. “I think just as they’ve had some great years, you’re going to have a lean one, and you’ve just got to keep your culture going. (Dennehy’s)kids fight as hard as anybody in the league. He’s doing a great job, it’s not an easy situation, but the new playoff format keeps things very interesting. Lot of similarities to where we were.”

One thing Merrimack has this season that the Catamounts didn’t in 2012 is life after the regular season, with a play-in game looming next weekend.

“Everybody’s got something to play for,” Sneddon said. “We’ve been in the situation where we’ve been in the basement and there hasn’t been a lot of light at the end of the tunnel. For them, hey, they’re trying to string some games together here where they can make some noise in the playoffs.”

Player of the Week

Mario Puskarich, fr., Vermont

Seems like Super Mario is never too far away from this spot every week. In the sweep at Merrimack, the freshman from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., had a natural hat trick Friday night and added an assist Saturday, coming away from the weekend with five points to move within three of league-leading freshman Mike Szmatula of Northeastern.

Games of the Week

UMass-Lowell at Vermont, Friday and Saturday

The season comes to a wild finish this weekend as only one playoff spot, first place, is locked up. The River Hawks are playing to solidify home ice in the quarterfinals, while the Catamounts are hoping to leapfrog a few teams and get inside that coveted Top 5 group that gets a bye for the first round.

Hockey East power rankings

  1. Boston College (25-4-4, 16-1-2 HEA) – The Eagles, who remain unbeaten for a nation-best 19 games, saw their 11-game win streak snapped with Saturday’s tie with Lowell. That stretch is the longest since the incredible 19-game surge that ran all the way to the 2012 national title.

  2. UMass-Lowell (20-8-4, 10-5-3 HEA) – The River Hawks are the first team to even tie BC since Brown on Jan. 11, and the first Hockey East team to take so much as a point from the Eagles since Maine beat them on Nov. 23.

  3. Northeastern (18-10-4, 10-6-2 HEA) – The Huskies’ three-point weekend against Maine clinched a finish of no worse than sixth place in Hockey East, meaning Northeastern will have, at minimum, its best finishing position since 2011.

  4. Vermont (17-11-3, 9-9-0 HEA)Mario Puskarich’s natural hat trick in Friday night’s wild 4-1 Catamount win at Merrimack was the first hat trick of any kind by a UVM player since Wahsontiio Stacey on Oct. 8, 2010, and it helped the Catamounts extend their road winning streak to four. They made it five straight the next night.

  5. New Hampshire (18-15-1, 10-8-0 HEA)Matt Willows’ hat trick on Feb. 17 was his second of the season, marking the first time a UNH player has turned the trick twice in a year since Stevie Moses in 2011-12.

  6. Providence (17-9-6, 9-7-2 HEA) – The Friars snapped their five-game winless streak with a sweep of UMass, though allowing three power play goals, including two in the third period, takes some of the shine off of Friday night’s streak buster.

  7. Maine (15-11-4, 9-6-3 HEA) – Maine’s tie and loss to Northeastern marked the first weekend series (against the same opponent) in which the Black Bears didn’t come away with at least one win since Nov. 1-2, when they drew and lost to UMass.

  8. Notre Dame (19-12-2, 8-9-2 HEA) – The Irish are unbeaten in their last five league games, thanks in part to Steven Summerhays’ back-to-back shutouts, though his defense helped him out by limiting BU to just 41 combined shots in the weekend’s two games.

  9. UMass (8-21-4, 4-13-3 HEA) – The Minutemen became the first Hockey East team to finish the regular season, and would’ve certainly liked to do it better than with a pair of losses to Providence. They’ll be on the road for the first round of the playoffs, though their opponent could be any one of five teams.

  10. Boston University (8-20-4, 3-12-3 HEA) – There may be no program happier about the new playoff format in Hockey East than the Terriers, who can finish no higher than ninth. Under the old format, this year would mark the first time in league history that BU didn’t make the playoffs.

  11. Merrimack (7-20-3, 2-14-2 HEA) – Barring anything crazy happening in the final weekend, Mike Collins (Roslindale, Mass.) will lead the Warriors in scoring for the second straight year. The last player to lead Merrimack in back-to-back seasons was Stephane Da Costa from 2009-11.

Twitter: @A_Merritt
Email: amerritt@hockeyjournal.com