At the end of the 2011-2012 year Merrimack College was coming off their two most successful seasons since joining Hockey East back in 1989. The Warriors had advanced to the Hockey East championship game for the first time in school history, hosted a home playoff series for just the second time and reached a number one national ranking in the span of two seasons.
There was one problem for Mark Dennehy. His program had lost a ton of talent after each of those seasons. Stephane Da Costa had turned pro following the 2010-11 season and now plays for the Ottawa Senators. Joe Cannata and Karl Stollery graduated after last season and are now both playing in the AHL with Chicago and Lake Erie, respectively. Other skilled forwards, such as Chris Barton, Joe Cucci, Jesse Todd and Ryan Flanigan, had departed.
It was no surprise with all the question marks that Merrimack was picked to finish 8th in the Hockey East pre-season coaches poll. The Warriors had some notable wins early in the season, including a big upset over Union, a team in the top five at the time.
However, the first half had as many downs as it did ups for Merrimack as the Warriors concluded the 2012 portion of their schedule two games below .500. Since then, the Warriors are 8-2-1. All eleven of those games were conference games, which has vaulted Merrimack into first place.
Mark Dennehy has proven to be a terrific coach, a major reason the Warriors are in the position they are in. He recently won his 100th game at Merrimack, a major coup at a school that had struggled for much of its time in Hockey East. He has gotten some big-time talent to come to North Andover, but for the most part he has been able to get more out of overlooked players than could be expected.
The blueline is a perfect example of that. Juniors Brendan Ellis and Jordan Heywood are two of the most reliable and solid defensemen in Hockey East. Both were largely passed over out of the British Columbia Hockey League. Heywood is wearing a letter on his sweater for the second consecutive season. Ellis is an alternate captain as a junior.
One of the biggest reasons for the second half turnaround is the play of junior goaltender Sam Marotta. The Bridgewater, Mass. native was an afterthought in the recruiting process. Dennehy picked him up late in the process. Marotta rode the pine his first two seasons, backing up All-American Joe Cannata. After an up and down first half, Marotta has been nothing short of spectacular in the second half. He has recorded two shutouts since January and has seen his goals against average drop to a miniscule 2.01. His save percentage has vaulted to .931. Both statistics rank number one in the conference. As good as Marotta has been, he has needed offensive help to win games and much of that has come from one source.
The team's most valuable player is junior Mike Collins who leads the conference in scoring in league games and is second in overall games. The local product out of Boston, Mass. is an NHL free agent. Ever since being put on a line with Da Costa as a freshman, Collins has shown offensive creativity. It was not until this season that he became such an important two-way player. Dennehy has used him in all situations, including late in the game to hold the lead.
Whether Merrimack finishes the regular season in first place or not, Mark Dennehy should be the coach of the year in the conference. There are only four seniors on the team and only two of them, Kyle Bigos and John Heffernan, play on a regular basis. Now that should be a scary thought for coaches in the rest of the league.
Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.