If the Merrimack College Warriors aren’t the lunch pail crew in the room then I’m not sure who is.
Last night in their first Hockey East Semifinal tilt since the movie Titanic was still in theaters, the Warriors punched their time card, put on their hardhats, and went to work.
While some teams earn their living with finesse, skating end to end, and opening up the ice, Merrimack puts food on the table with the business of grinding. And right now partner, business is’a booming. On the boards, in the corners, in front of the net.
Nobody does it better. Just ask UNH.
“We didn’t want to start going end to end with UNH,” explained Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy after his club’s 4-1 over the Wildcats. “We got back to our type of hockey, kind of in your face, taking away seams and then possessing the puck down low and making them defend.”
The surprise/feel good/little engine that could, or whatever tag line you’d like to pin on their season, is surely deserving. Until this year it’s no secret that the Warriors have been the doormat of Hockey East, and now they find themselves with a top ten national ranking and facing off against Boston College in the Hockey East Championship game.
Early on it was a nice surprise for pundits: “Oh look at Merrimack, winning some games, how cute!” But as November rolled into December and January turned to February, Merrimack put in their overtime and ran up the most home wins in the league at their humble abode in Lawler Arena. Under the cover of the MC logo on their jerseys, not any singular star players, the Warriors turned into a legitimate contender.
In 2006-07 the Warriors only posted three wins. Most non Massachusetts native hockey fans probably couldn’t have pointed out on a map where Merrimack was. I can hear my father now in his Denis Lemieux French Canadian accent, “Andover? I hardly know her! Heh!(slaps knee).”
But I have a feeling that Merrimack is going to be popping up on the college hockey radar on a much wider scale very soon. And they will have done it without a Hobey Baker Finalist. Without any 100 point scorers. With only one player getting an individual award (Stephane DaCosta second Team Hockey East). And quicker than anyone probably imagined.
Not to say that the Warriors don’t have some extremely talented players. Joe Cannata might rival Jon Muse for the best goalie in Hockey East on his best days, and Stephane DaCosta provides an extremely potent offensive touch. Surely this great season will attract even more great talent in the years to come, but for right now the Warriors are sticking to what they know best.
“One of things we have prided ourselves on all year is being able to handle adversity,” Dennehy said. “Staying in the moment and kind of emptying the tank and seeing after sixty, or sixty-five minutes seeing where we stand. I thought our guys did a real good job of that. The bench was very positive.”
Andover is taking notice as well. Merrimack fans easily outnumbered UNH fans 3:1 last evening at the Garden.
“I would say probably a third of the people here are just form the Andover area. They have no ties to the school except the excitement of college hockey and they sort of jumped on our bandwagon which is plenty big enough” said Dennehy, who showed gratitude towards the growing fan base. “A Small school like Merrimack, you could be the best team in the world, and if your players aren’t good people, they are not going to be supported. Our guys are in the community, people know who they are.”
The Warriors are ready to up their tax bracket. They’ve got their eyes on that year end bonus that they have never had the chance to cash in on. In their way, the man, the Boston College Eagles.
“There is a lot of water under that bridge,” said Dennehy. “I think it is safe to say we have our hands full. They are a very good team. It will be a heck of a challenge for our guys, but that is why they came here. We will get a chance to measure up tomorrow.”