Six years is a long time. Ask the Merrimack Warriors. The
last time they were in the playoffs, the top grossing movie was Shrek 2, the
top album was Usher’s ‘Confessions,’ and Hockey East had only nine members, and
every one of them made the postseason.
That season, the
2003-04 Warriors finished seventh, and have
since endured through a coaching change and a single season with a double-digit
win total (12-18-4, 2007-08).
Fast forward to
2009-10, Coach Mark Dennehy’s fifth season with the Warriors program; the team
started off with a 6-3 record, including wins over Holy Cross, Vermont, Boston
College and Boston University before hitting the skids midseason, dropping
seven straight into the new year. It looked like Merrimack was heading for yet
another disappointing season, with the majority of Hockey East play ahead of
But then, everything
came together over the stretch. An 8-4-2 run to end the season, placing them
squarely in sixth place in the tightly packed standings. A playoff berth. A
first round matchup with BU, a team they’ve 1-2-0 against during the season.
something we’ve been building towards,” Dennehy said. “Our first goal
was to make the playoffs. That’s the big one. To have a chance at any of your
goals, you have to make the dance, so to speak. It came down to the wire.”
For players like
junior captain Chris Barton, the wire is long-time coming.
“We had three
wins in my first season,” he says. “Last year we had fourteen
one-goal losses. Theres a lot of excitement going on around here.”
As there should be.
After years of losses – many of them heart-breaking – there’s something to be
excited about in North Andover.
ago, we scored 37 goals in 34 games,” Dennehy said. “This season,
we’ve tripled that. There are certain fundamentals – crashing the net, blocking
shots. This season, we came
in with that preceding, guys with a skill set.”
“It had a lot to do with the recruiting,” Barton added. “We didn’t have that kind of talent we needed. Now we have more
better guys. There’s more skill, a little depth. We used to have maybe two
lines; now we can go as far as three line. There’s a little bit of [skill and
grit]. Coach Dennehy has gone to Alberta and gotten guys from winning programs,
guys that know how to win.”
Dennehy has started
to land some big-name recruits, and they’re already making an impact:
defenseman Kyle Bigos and goalie Joe Cannata became the team’s first draft
picks since 2002. John Heffernan made a name for himself in the USHL. Stephane Da Costa leads the team with 44 points and
is third in the country with 1.42 points per game on the season. There’s
numerous winners of the Royal Bank Cup, Canada’s Junior A trophy. There’s a
different atmosphere to Lawler Arena, and it’s already noticeable.
have said, ‘The team with the best players wins,’” Dennehy recalls. ”That’s true
about 90% of the time, so that means as a coach, I only affect things about ten
percent. A lot of our guys came into the season and were overlooked or are
coming into their own.
“Last season, we led the country in one-goal losses and
one-goal games. We liked what the freshman class brought in, and how hard the
sophomore class worked over the summer.”
Though their record doesn’t reflect it, Merrimack has begun
to show the hallmarks of programs that recruit well.
Over the last few seasons,
Matt Jones and Joe Loprieno have bolted for the pros – top end talent doesn’t
stay in one place for long. Already, pro teams are lining up to talk to Da
Costa, the Parisian who’s almost a lock to, at the very least, win Hockey
East’s Rookie of the Year (after winning all five of the monthly awards during
the season), as well as tallied an eye-popping five goals in just his second
Of course, all the skill in the world means nothing if
there’s no driving force behind it.
“We’ve have a team motto, which is 212 degrees, which is the boiling point
of water, Dennehy said. “At 211 degrees, all you have is a pot of hot
water, but at 212 you have steam, boiling, bubbling, and powerful enough to
push a locomotive. It’s that extra one degree, and the guys have really
dedicated themselves to it.”
It’s a mindset that
players can continue to bring back to campus over the next few season, season’s
that players like Barton have helped to pave the way for.
“It’s all new to
us,” he laughs. But he’s not ready to look too far ahead. Not when
everyone of the Warriors will be playing in their first collegiate playoff
series against fourth-ranked Boston College. “We’ve been in playoff mode
for the last nine games. All we have to do is take these last nine games and
take them into this weekend.”
It’s not so easy for Dennehy, as his job description forces
him to continually look forward. But that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy the
apprehensive to get ahead into next season,” he says, his smile almost
audible. “This is the most fun I’ve had as a coach. We’re really just
living in the moment right now.”
A well-earned moment,