NORTH ANDOVER, MASS. -- When your team won just eight games all of last season, starting off the year 2-0 is a good a feeling. That was the position Merrimack was in Saturday night after the Warriors held on for a 2-1 win and series sweep of Holy Cross.
"I thought we played better tonight than we did last night. With a young team and nine freshman in the lineup it's nice to continue to get better. It's two hard fought contests and we were good enough to win both of them," said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy.
"We're really excited to come out with a win. The boys are pretty excited. The freshmen coming in don't quite comprehend what we've been through, but the past is the past. We're really excited for this season and happy to come out with a sweep on the first weekend," said senior goaltender Rasmus Tirronen, who stopped 26 shots on the night.
"It was a really good hockey game. For the people that were here it was a really entertaining game. There were a lot of chances back and forth," said first year Holy Cross head coach Dave Berard. "I'm disappointed that we lost because I thought we played well enough to get at least a tie."
Merrimack came out flying with energy and firing on all cylinders. Jace Hennig capitalized on that early momentum, picking up his first collegiate goal at the 3:30 mark to give the Warriors a 1-0 lead. Jonathan Lashyn's shot was blocked, but neither Holy Cross defenders nor goaltender Matt Ginn could swipe the puck away. Hennig got his stick loose and swept the puck in.
Midway through the opening period, the Crusaders drew even when big junior winger Caston Summer re-directed Jake Bolton's blast from the left point.
With Holy Cross' Brett McKinnon off for high sticking, the Warriors took advantage on the power play. It was a mildly ineffective man advantage, but Hampus Gustafsson's centering pass to a pinching Dan Kolomatis was deflected past Ginn by one of his own defenders. Quinn Gould and Marc Biega picked up the helpers on the goal at the 8:17 mark of the second period that regained the lead for Merrimack.
Merrimack senior goaltender Rasmus Tirronen came up big in the latter stages of the second period including a huge stop with his shoulder after an errant clearing pass gave HC numbers.
"I didn't see a whole lot of shots, but they came in a bunch one time. Pucks seemed to hit me today," said Tirronen.
"[Rasmus] finished the year strong last year with his last eight games. If we're going to do anything here, it's going to be from the net out. We need a solid effort every night out and so far he's two-for-two," explained Dennehy.
The Warriors' power play unit looked much improved and moved the puck very well all night. The top power play unit came close to giving Merrimack some breathing room midway through the final period, but two shots clanged off the post.
Ginn, who was forced to make several key saves on the night, robbed Merrimack freshman Brett Seney on an odd-man rush with 39 seconds to play in the second period.
As it did most of the third period, Merrimack did a good job of clogging the neutral zone and hemming Holy Cross in its own zone during the last few minutes which prevented the Crusaders from pulling Matt Ginn for the extra attacker.
"One of our better periods was the third. We really locked them down in the third," said Dennehy. "We had some veteran guys out there who've been out there before."
With the lead, Merrimack showed some good poise for a team looking to bounce back from last season. Nothing showed that more than when junior Brian Christie carried the puck all the way around the offensive zone before dishing it back out to Justin Mansfield to kill time off the clock.
"At the end there where Brian Christie took it to their zone and had the poise to bring it back to our zone and feed our guy, that's something in the heat of the moment that took me back. The poise there by Brian Christie was a key play," said Tirronen.
"He was hurt last year. He finished the season averaging a half point a game, but he played his best hockey in the second half," said Dennehy. "He's been our best forward so far. He's been our most consistent forward. He looked like he was everywhere. He was possessing the puck."
It wasn't the start Berard was looking for, but his team stayed competitive and there were certainly some positives for his young team adjusting to a new coach.
"We had moments where we had the momentum and generated a lot of offense," said Berard. "There are some areas that we need to continue to work, but it's only the first weekend of the year."
Even on the road, Berard said he noticed a positive difference in the way his team played tonight as opposed to last.
"From our perspective, I thought it was a much better effort. We executed what we're trying to do better. I like the way we played. I thought we played faster tonight. We moved pucks better in transition tonight. We got to the net more and generated more offense," said Berard, the former Providence assistant.
"I gave Dave and his team a lot of credit. I think they have a good team. I told our guys, they're going to win a lot of games and that's only going to help us down the road. They're probably going to compete for an Atlantic [Hockey] championship and may be in the NCAA Tournament," complimented Dennehy.
Merrimack won back-to-back games for the first time since October 19 through November 1 of last season when the Warriors won three consecutive games over Mercyhurst, Army and Bentley. Merrimack will go for three straight wins next Saturday when it hosts Hockey East newcomer Connecticut on Homecoming Weekend at Lawler Rink.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.