Saturday’s 7-1 beat down of No. 9 Maine showcased everything No. 17 Merrimack is doing right this season. Although the seven goals are what jump out at you, the win started from the goal out, just like most of the Warriors’ wins.
Merrimack, who is ranked for the first time in program history, stifled Maine’s potent offense in the first period, holding the Black Bears to just five shots and three grade-A chances. The Warriors did not allow any easy entries, they did a good job getting in shooting and passing lanes, and they cleared away rebounds, none of which are anything new for the best defensive team in Hockey East.
“We have a lot of unheralded guys,” said coach Mark Dennehy. “Adam Ross doesn’t get a lot of attention, but he uses more ice bags at the end of the game. I mean, he’s one of the best shot-blockers in the league and really does a good job of boxing out in front of the net. Fraser Allan, holy smokes, what he’s doing on 75-year-old knees is amazing. He plays with such poise and savvy.”
Already trailing 3-1 after the first, the Black Bears broke through a bit in the second, outshooting Merrimack 14-8 in the frame, only to have junior goalie Joe Cannata greet them with one big save after another. Cannata has been one of the best netminders in Hockey East all season – he ranks second in both goals-against average and save percentage – and Saturday was no exception, as he stopped 29 of the 30 shots he faced.
“At the end of the day, I thought our goalie was really good when he needed to be,” Dennehy said.
Another strength of the Warriors has been their penalty kill, which is the second best in the country. The Black Bears scored the game’s first goal on an early 5-on-3, but Merrimack held them to six shots and no goals on their next five power plays.
Not only did the Warriors shut down Maine’s power play, but they scored two shorthanded goals, including one late in the second that made it 4-1 and all but sent the Black Bears into hibernation. Elliott Sheen led a 2-on-1 break and his shot produced a juicy rebound that Chris Barton buried.
“I thought that fourth goal was a little bit of a back breaker,” Dennehy said. “Barton scores at 18:37. They were on us for large stretches (of the second).”
Of course, Merrimack’s offense was rather impressive, too. The Warriors’ scoring actually started on a bit of fluky play. With 7:58 to go in the first and Merrimack on the power play, Joe Cucci broke down the right wing and centered a pass that Maine defenseman Jeff Dimmen accidentally tipped into his own net.
The rest of the game was no fluke, though. Just 42 seconds after Cucci’s tally, Shawn Bates teed up a slapper that squeezed its way through Martin Ouellette, who was pulled for Dan Sullivan after the first, and trickled over the line.
Two minutes after that, Stephane Da Costa sniped the top right corner from the high slot to up the lead to two.
Brandon Brodhag registered the Warriors’ fifth marker early in the third when he gathered a rebound off the end boards and slipped it inside the right post. Da Costa added to Maine’s misery with his second of the game 1:44 later, and then Jesse Todd tacked on the extra point a couple minutes later with Merrimack’s second shorty of the night.
“One of the big things was we changed our forecheck midway through the first, and I’d be lying to you if I told you it was our decision,” Dennehy said. “One of the players came to us and said, ‘I think we could try this instead.’ I think that kind of stemmed the tide and kind of changed the momentum a little bit.”
With the win, the Warriors moved into fourth place in the conference and improved to 5-1-1 at Lawler Arena, including a 3-0-1 record against ranked teams at home. That defense of home ice has been another big plus for Merrimack this season.
“There’s a lot of support in the community,” Barton said of his team’s home-ice advantage. “We’re not used to this. The last two years, we haven’t had support like this. It picks you up.”
The loss was the Black Bears’ fifth in their last nine games and their most lopsided of the season. Needless to say, coach Tim Whitehead was not pleased.
“That was an absolute embarrassment,” Whitehead said. “The effort, the execution was poor. I’m having trouble thinking of one player who really played his heart out. It was a poor team effort. We got outclassed in every category of the game, at every position.”