By Andy Merritt
This is the time of year when you want to be playing your best hockey.
This is not the time of year that Merrimack is finding itself playing its best hockey.
Just three weeks ago, the Warriors were sitting in first place in Hockey East, having beaten Boston College 2-1 in overtime on Feb. 15 to supplant the Eagles atop the standings. It was the fourth straight win for Merrimack, and the sixth in seven games.
The Warriors haven’t won a game since.
Merrimack has gone 0-4-1 since that victory over BC, and their precipitous fall has taken them from first place all the way to sixth, three points out of home ice for the quarterfinals with only two games left in the regular season. In a wild and woolly race to the finish that has seen five teams hold first place at least temporarily over the last three weeks, Merrimack is the only team in the upper echelon of the league that has consistently struggled in this crucial final stretch.
Last weekend, the Warriors surrendered an ill-timed two-game sweep to UMass-Lowell, which outscored them 7-1 over the two victories. That put the River Hawks in first place, and made UML the first Hockey East team to clinch home ice.
“I think it took us too long to join the battle,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said after Sunday’s 3-1 loss, in which the River Hawks took a 3-0 lead before allowing just a Shawn Bates goal early in the third. “I thought once we joined the battle, we made a game of it, but you’ve got to play hard. I couldn’t play in that, even back in the day I couldn’t play in that. Not my type of game. I was pretty soft.”
“Soft” certainly isn’t a good word to describe the former BC player’s charges. The Warriors are hardly a finesse team, and their gritty play has suited them well for much of the year, earning them a respectable 12.7 penalty minutes per game that puts them in the middle of the Hockey East pack. They’ve mostly taken care of themselves when the penalties have been called, as well, with an 86.7 percent kill rate that’s second best in the league.
But that toughness has also come at a cost. Sunday’s game winner was scored on the power play by Lowell’s Josh Holmstrom, who had a bonanza first period, scoring UML’s first two goals. And Kyle Bigos, Merrimack’s monstrous defenseman, had trouble staying out of the penalty box. While the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Bigos has struggled with penalties throughout his career – sometimes simply because his height and size has made it hard for referees to distinguish between clean checks and dirty play – he has tightened up his game for much of 2012-13.
Yet all that progress went out the window on Sunday, when Bigos picked up a game misconduct after the final buzzer after several players tangled at the end of a chippy game between the Merrimack Valley neighbors. Although several members of both teams were involved, only Bigos picked up penalties as a result of the fracas, and his second game misconduct of the season led to a one-game suspension, meaning he’s out of the lineup for Friday’s penultimate regular season game, against UMass.
The frustration, Dennehy said, is beginning to mount for the Warriors.
“At least [the players] got to hit people,” Dennehy said. “How frustrated am I? They’re pretty frustrated, they’re working hard, just not hard enough.”
Merrimack – along with the rest of the nine teams still in playoff contention – has just 120 minutes left to get things sorted out before the quarterfinal series start next week. But there’s no magic method for the struggling Warriors to turn their season around, just a simple solution, said Dennehy.
“You win two playoff games and go to the Garden.”
Players of the Week
Matt Nieto, jr., Boston University, and John Henrion, sr., New Hampshire
Both players had hat tricks in a crucial weekend for playoff positioning. Henrion (Holden, Mass.) picked up the first trick of his collegiate career to lead UNH to a 4-0 win over UMass on Saturday, which kept them just one point behind first-place Lowell. Nieto’s natural hat trick polished off a week in which he scored six goals and one assist over three games, as BU went 2-1-0 to keep hope of home ice alive.
Games of the Week
Providence at UMass-Lowell, Friday, 7 p.m.; UMass-Lowell at Providence, Saturday, 7 p.m.
One of the most dramatic Hockey East seasons in recent memory comes to a close this weekend, and the regular-season title and playoff positioning are both anything but set. The Friars are looking to stay in the top 4 and host a quarterfinal series, and if they can hold on, the River Hawks would be the first team not named Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire or Maine to win the regular season title in the league’s 28-year history.
1. UMass-Lowell (21-9-2, 15-8-2 HEA) – The River Hawks’ midseason hiccup seems to be over for sure, as they’re unbeaten in their last seven after a 60-save-on-61-shot effort from freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck led their sweep of Merrimack last weekend.
2. New Hampshire (18-8-6, 13-7-5 HEA) – Casey DeSmith (Rochester, N.H.) made 60 saves on 62 UMass shots to preserve a three-point weekend for the Wildcats, who are unbeaten in their last five (2-0-3).
3. Providence (14-11-7, 12-7-6 HEA) – Since an inconsistent 7-8-3 start, the Friars have gone 7-3-4, and still have an outside chance at winning the regular season title with a three-point weekend against UMass-Lowell.
4. Boston College (19-10-3, 14-9-2 HEA) – At one point this year, it seemed like BC might never have double-digit losses, but injuries and a bad run of play have hit the Eagles hard, and they’ve got just two wins in their last six games (2-3-1). They also got more bad news, as junior Kevin Hayes (Dorchester, Mass.) is gone for the season with a leg injury.
5. Boston University (16-15-2, 13-10-2 HEA) – Last weekend was sort of a perfect microcosm of BU’s year. Matt Nieto’s natural hat trick led an impressive 3-1 win over Vermont on Friday, but on Saturday it was like the Terriers were up against world-beaters as the Catamounts rocked them with a 5-2 win, including two goals in the final two minutes.
6. Merrimack (14-14-6, 12-10-3 HEA) – Friday’s 4-0 shutout loss to Lowell marked the first time Merrimack had been held without a goal in 42 games, dating back to Feb. 10, 2012.
7. Vermont (11-16-5, 8-12-5 HEA) – UVM is on the wrong side of a sizable chasm between the league’s elite and the also-rans this year, but the Catamounts are still in good shape for home ice, with a series against out-of-contention Northeastern to end the regular season this weekend.
8. Maine (10-17-7, 6-12-7 HEA) – The Black Bears are 1-1-1 over their last three, and will probably need at least two points from two games against New Hampshire to stay in the playoff picture this weekend, but the fact that Maine controls its own destiny after a catastrophic start is pretty impressive nonetheless.
9. UMass (11-18-3, 8-15-2 HEA) – The good news is that the season-ending home-and-home against Merrimack doesn’t look quite as daunting as it did when the Warriors were in first place. The bad news is that UMass needs to win – and needs help – to keep coach John Micheletto’s first season behind the bench from ending without a playoff berth.
10. Northeastern (9-19-4, 5-16-4 HEA) – The Huskies are in an unfortunately familiar place, as they can only play spoiler in this weekend’s games against Vermont after being knocked out of the playoffs with last week’s loss and tie against Maine.