November 9, 2012

Hockey East Journal: Merrimack off to up-and-down start

By Andrew Merritt

It's been an up-and-down start to the year for the Merrimack Warriors. 

Junior Jordan Heywood is the Warriors' captain this season. (Photo: Merrimack Athletics)

That tends to be what happens to teams that field just a couple of seniors each night, and a boatload of freshmen.

While coach Mark Dennehy (Dorchester) cautioned against the use of the word "young" to describe his team, since many of the underclassmen are older than their non-hockey-playing classmates, his is still a team full of players whose college experience is limited. 

The Warriors have just three seniors on their roster - forwards Brandon Brodhag and John Heffernan, and defenseman Kyle Bigos ‑ and a whopping seven freshmen, all of whom have gotten ice time in at least four of Merrimack's eight games this year. In the middle are nine sophomores and seven juniors, and the latter group is, effectively, the veteran class. Even the team's captain, Jordan Heywood, is a junior.

That showed last weekend, as six of the Warriors' nine goals were scored by juniors over their two games against Northeastern - both wins. Heywood had the rosiest weekend, scoring twice in Friday's 5-2 win and picking up the game-winner in Saturday's 4-2 victory.

"It's just a group effort," said Heywood, who earned the league's Player of the Week nod for his four-point, plus-5 weekend. "We do have a young team, we have a lot of freshmen in the lineup every night, so we just have to lead by example, whether you're a sophomore, junior or senior, and show the freshmen the ropes. I think the upperclassmen have done a pretty good job of that so far, and as a result you're seeing the freshmen make plays."

The freshmen did show up in the home-and-home, accounting for a goal and three assists in the Warriors' sweep. 

It's a good time for the youth movement to pick up steam. Merrimack started the year 1-3, including a rough trip north to Alaska for the Goal Rush tournament. Since then, though, the Warriors have gone 3-0-1, all against league opponents, and four of their next six are also against Hockey East foes. 

Dennehy said it's taken a little time for his "young" squad to find its identity, but the early struggles have actually helped.

"Games like [Saturday's], and games like last night, even the game against Fairbanks out [in Alaska] go a long way toward giving you an idea of what you've got in there," Dennehy said, speaking after Saturday's win. "Early on, these guys recognize that no matter what the score is, they've got to keep playing. It's a little early for playoff games, but that was a playoff game today, and for our guys to grind it out and come back from a 2-0 deficit says a lot about the leadership in that locker room." 

Leadership hasn't been limited to the guy with the C on his chest, either.

"You look at the guys who are scoring the goals, a junior in Shawn Bates, and Mikey Collins (Boston) who, holy smokes, bottle that," Dennehy. "Jordan Heywood who just, at times, takes the team on his shoulders. They led by example tonight, and our young guys followed."

Collins might be the best example of a junior stepping up for Merrimack. After drawing a blank in both of the first two games, Collins is on a six-game point streak, and his five goals and seven assists suddenly have him in command of the Hockey East scoring lead, three points ahead of BC's Johnny Gaudreau. 

Dennehy credited Collins with playing a more complete game over the last few weeks.

"His scoring's going to come and go, I don't care how good you are, there's peaks and valleys in it, but the game you bring to the ice every night, you control," Dennehy said. "Anybody that comes to watch him knows he can put the puck in the net, but is he going to be able to do those other things? He wasn't doing them the first couple of games, and he's been our best forward up front because he's doing it."

As Collins has gone, so have the Warriors, whose youth is starting to be overshadowed by quality play. 

Player of the Week

Casey DeSmith, so., UNH

The goaltender from Rochester, N.H. earned the league's defensive player of the week for the third straight week, and it's well deserved. DeSmith bounced back from a 2-1 overtime loss to UMass on Nov. 2 to shut out Maine with 42 saves two days later, and he now leads the league in goals against average (1.54) and save percentage (.947).

Game of the Week

Boston College at Boston University, Saturday, 5 p.m. (NESN)

And here we go again. The No. 1 Eagles visit the No. 12 Terriers for the first time this season, and while most in the region will be tuned into football, this big battle gets started well after the Patriots' game should be over, meaning plenty of people will be able to see the fireworks from the next chapter in the ancient rivalry.

Power Rankings

1. Boston College (6-1-0, 6-1-0 HEA) – Led by three points each from Needham, Mass., native Bill Arnold and freshman Michael Matheson, and 57 saves on 61 shots by Parker Milner, the Eagles picked up wins at Maine and at home against UMass to extend their streak to six straight. 

2. Boston University (4-2-0, 3-1-0 HEA) – Freshman goaltender Matt O'Connor shined in Saturday's 4-2 victory at North Dakota, giving the Terriers a split in Grand Forks. 

3. Merrimack (4-3-1, 3-1-1 HEA) – The Warriors' stock continues to rise after the weekend sweep of Northeastern, which also included a combined 47 saves on 51 shots by goaltenders Sam Marotta (Bridgewater, Mass.) and Rasmus Tirronen.

4. New Hampshire (5-1-1, 3-1-1 HEA) – The Wildcats got a real shock from UMass on the road Nov. 2, allowing the tying goal in the second period and the winning goal on an overtime power play, but Austin Block's two goals and DeSmith's efforts in net gave UNH the 4-0 shutout two days later at Maine.

5. Providence (4-3-1, 3-2-0 HEA) – The Friars settled for a split with Vermont over the weekend, but got a strong performance from freshman goaltender Jon Gillies (South Portland, Maine), who made 42 saves on 46 shots. 

6. Northeastern (2-4-1, 2-4-1 HEA) – The Huskies haven't had a lot of luck against Merrimack lately, and they fell to 2-4-1 over the last seven meetings, despite multi-point weekends from Vinny Saponari, Kevin Roy and Ludwig Karlsson.

7. UMass-Lowell (1-3-1, 0-2-1 HEA) – The River Hawks had the week off, and get back to work with a pair of home games against lowly Maine Friday and Saturday. 

8. Vermont (1-2-2, 1-2-2 HEA) – Rookie goaltender Brody Hoffman continued his strong start, making 45 saves on 48 shots to help the Catamounts to a split with Providence - including Hoffman's first career shutout Saturday, on 24 stops.

9. UMass (2-4-0, 1-4-0 HEA) – The Minutemen gave new coach John Micheletto the first Hockey East win of his tenure, and they sure made it a doozy, beating New Hampshire in overtime on Darren Rowe's power play goal.

10. Maine (1-8-0, 0-4-0 HEA) – The early freeze continues in Orono, where the Black Bears are off to their worst start since the 1985-86 season, in which they finished 11-28-1. The slide continued with losses last weekend to BC and New Hampshire. 

Andrew Merritt can be reached at MerrittNEHJ@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @A_Merritt.