The way Merrimack College and New Hampshire are playing as they enter their first round series in the Hockey East Tournament couldn’t be more different.
The Warriors are 7-3-3 over their last 13 games compared to the Wildcats who are 1-9-3 over that same span. The two teams that will play at Lawler Rink starting Friday evening with a spot in the quarterfinals on the line couldn’t be more different than they were in the first half of the season.
"I like the way we finished, better than the way we started. I’ve liked our team from the beginning of the year. I thought we had the ingredients to have a pretty strong team," said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy.
New Hampshire beat and tied Merrimack, 6-2 and 3-3, in October and November at the Whittemore Center. However, the Warriors had a somewhat distinct possession advantage in both of those games, especially even strength.
There is some recent post-season history between the two clubs. After falling behind one-game-to-zero, Merrimack reeled off two consecutive victories to knock UNH out of the playoffs in the first round of the Hockey East Tournament a year ago.
"As soon as I found out we were playing them, the first thing I thought of was that we could get back at them for last season," said UNH senior Tyler Kelleher.
Containing Kelleher, the leading scorer in Hockey East and the national leader in assists, will go a long way in determining the success the Warriors have in this series. However, Dennehy is less concerned about stopping one particular player than he is with having team play its game.
"One of the reasons we’ve had success is we’ve concentrated on ourselves and our game. We’re geared towards taking care of our own end first. Regardless of who, you have to defend when you don’t have the puck. The best defense is to have [the puck] and spend as much time in the offensive zone as possible," said Dennehy.
Another significant reason for the Warriors' turnaround has been the play of junior goaltender Collin Delia, who was injured for a large part of the first. The Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. native has the best save percentage, .935, of any goaltender in Hockey East since Jan. 14.
"Getting Collin Delia healthy, and his play," said Dennehy of his team's renewed fortunes in the second half.
When one thinks of Merrimack's skilled players, New Jersey Devils prospect Brett Seney is usually the first player to come up in discussions. After all, he's been the team's leading scorer in each of his three seasons in a Warrior uniform.
However, when the team really started to prosper, with a sweep of BU and a victory over BC, it was with a newly minted first line that included Seney, the team's leading goal scorer Hampus Gustafsson and freshman Sami Tavernier.
Tavernier, a freshman, took some time to adjust to playing college hockey during the first half of the season, but he's really come into his own over the last two months.
"We don’t like to put guys with some of our established producers until they understand how they need to play at this level. It took Sami a little bit of time to understand how to play at the college level and the 200-foot game," Dennehy explained.
The Morzine, France native is the team's leading point producer over the past 13 games with five goals and eight assists. Out of Topeka in the NAHL, Tavernier was a little bit of an unknown to many, but the Merrimack coaching staff has been high on him since the recruiting process.
"It’s funny. You have the North American Hockey League Top Prospects Game going on right now. This time last year is when we finalized the recruitment of Sami," said Dennehy.
"We thought he was a highly skilled player. We think he has NHL hands and strength. He really makes plays. He sees the ice well. When he’s competing for pucks and when he’s on the puck, he’s very strong. He thinks about the next play. He’s a really good offensive player," Dennehy continued.
Seney is one of the faster and more skilled players in Hockey East while Gustafsson's size allows him to make time and space for his linemates.
"As soon as we put him with [Seney] there was definitely some chemistry between the two of them. They look for each other. When we weren’t scoring goals we decided to put both of them with our leading goal scorer, Hampus Gustafsson. Since then, some good things have happened," said Dennehy.
To win games in Hockey East, teams need more than just one line. The emergence of a reliable second line has been crucial for Merrimack's success over the past two months. The development of one player, sophomore Ludvig Larsson, in particular has been noticeable.
"I think Ludvig might have taken the biggest jump in the second half out of any of our players. He has explosive speed and he is a one-man breakout when he touches the puck in our zone," said Dennehy. "He shoots the puck well. He’s very good on face-offs. I’ve been very happy with Ludvig’s progress. He’s a very underrated player. He’s someone who will continue to get better and better."
Larsson has four goals and four assists over the past 12 games, playing with junior Jace Henig on the left wing and senior Chris Leblanc on the right side. Henig has five goals and five assists while Leblanc, an Ottawa Senators draft pick, has eight assists.
"Jace is really smart and gritty. He goes to the tough areas. Chris Leblanc has contributed there as well, giving us some secondary scoring," said Dennehy.
Playing in the cozy confines of Lawler Rink is another advantage the Warriors will have when the series gets underway. The team Dennehy has built is one that can take advantage of home cooking, a fact not lost on UNH coach Dick Umile.
"It’s a small building. I like the atmosphere. They are a strong, well-coached team. They play real hard. They play with lots of intensity. They come at you offensively and defensively," said Umile.
"It’s really about us. We’re very familiar with Lawler. There will be confidence and comfort. The team that wins is the team that plays their game for the best of their ability the longest," Dennehy concurred.