NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – Playing at Alfond Arena is always a challenge, and if any Hockey East team knows anything about road games in Orono, it is the Merrimack Warriors.
Last season, the Warriors dropped a hotly contested three-game series in the first round of the Championship Tournament, seeing their hopes of a second trip to TD Garden in a row fade. When the teams faced off on Saturday night at Lawler Arena, revenge was certainly in the minds of the Warriors.
From the outset, it was evident that familiarity bred contempt in the series as the teams began the first of three straight games – a rare Hockey East conference scheduling oddity. With the mindset changed in that scenario, there was more of a playoff feel than ever.
On the scoreboard, the Warriors cruised to a 6-0 shutout of the Black Bears and tied a season-high in goals to match the mark they set against Vermont on Oct. 26, 2012.
"When you score goals, the game is easy," said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy, whose team bounced back from a 4-1 Friday loss to Boston University. "I thought Maine played better than us for certain stretches of the game and it gave us a lot of problems [because they are a very good team]. The puck jumped into the net for us tonight, we were opportunistic…and efficient."
Dennehy and Merrimack pride itself on hard work, so that playoff mentality is nothing new - just amplified with the unusual circumstance against the Black Bears.
"I think we just match up that way," said sophomore Quinn Gould, who scored a first-period goal, on the aggressive nature of their head-to-head match-up. "I think a part of it is just the rivalry we have built with them the last couple years. As you see out there, the emotion is flying, guys get in people's faces. It is pretty exciting."
"We're going to go up there for two games and it's really like a mini-playoff series. We are definitely not going to forget what they did to us last year...I don't think it is our main focus, but the guys definitely do not forget how [that series] went last year."
Leading the way in the contest for Merrimack were two that always earn praise from their eighth-year bench boss - a pair of local products, junior classmates, and former high school archrivals.
Mike Collins, scored twice to add to his Hockey East-leading point total of 24. The Boston native and Catholic Memorial High School product was shut off the scoresheet in a league game for the first time this season on Friday night, but picked right back up.
Bridgewater, Mass. native Sam Marotta, who attended Boston College High School and won two state titles, posted his fifth win this year and third-career shutout with 30 saves.
"He is very athletic and competes his tail off," Dennehy, a fellow BC High alum said. "He was just on it...and there was a lot of positive reinforcement [from the bench], like 'Hey, let's finish this for Sam.' That's the type of environment we try to create."
For Marotta, a Massachusetts All-Scholastic and two-time state champion with the Eagles, Maine could wind up being the team's playoff opponent for a third straight year, despite their struggling record (5-13-3).
"We may see that team in the playoffs out there," Marotta commented. "It did not feel like a 6-0 game, they are a good team. They just needed a bounce of the puck and the game could have gone both ways. This is a playoff series, every game in Hockey East is like a playoff series. There is no good day off."
In their first-ever league quarterfinal series at home since joining Hockey East, the Warriors swept Maine in straight games in 2011 to advance to the semifinals for just the second time ever.
Despite the added level of motivation to "get back" at the Black Bears, there is no more motivation that their junior stopper needs than a key win in the league standings.
"I went in here, at least, think that it was just another game. I play every game 100 percent and that's the only motivation I need, just two points. That's what it was. I played hard...and respect my team a lot."
When the bus departs North Andover for Orono late next week, Merrimack will have one objective in its mind - closing out the "playoff series" with wins next Friday and Saturday at Alfond.
Joshua Kummins covers Hockey East for SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaKummins.