North Andover, Mass. — Merrimack freshman Sami Tavernier has taken full advantage of his increased ice time in the second half of the season.
The Morzine, France native had just two goals and two assists in his first 21 collegiate games, but has scored six goals and eight assists over the last 13 games. He’s enjoyed playing right wing on the Warriors’ top line with center Hampus Gustafsson and left wing Brett Seney.
“It helps a lot to get a couple extra points. We get along. We find each other. I like it a lot. They’re good guys and skilled players. Hampus walks hard and so does Seney,” said Tavernier.
The increased production from Tavernier shouldn’t come as too huge of a surprise. The 1997-born prospect skated for Finland at last summer’s National Junior Evaluation Camp and his skill has been evident to the Merrimack coaching staff since the recruiting process.
"We thought he was a highly skilled player,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said earlier in the week during a Hockey East Teleconference.
“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.
Tavernier is playing with confidence and it shows on the ice. His speed and strength are on display more than earlier in the season, but it’s also in part due to playing more freely.
“I can see the game pretty well, but I’ve been trying to not think too much lately and just play hockey,” he said.
On Friday night, he capitalized on another opportunity early in the game. The puck bounced over the stick of UNH left defenseman Anthony Wyse at the Merrimack blue line. Tavernier blew past Wyse and went in all alone on UNH goaltender Danny Tirone. With one quick deke to the backhand, Tavernier pushed the puck past the sliding goaltender and into the back of the net.
“The puck was bouncing. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I tried five-hole at first, but I just tried backhand. It just went in so I was happy,” said Tavernier, who has now registered at least a point in seven straight games.
The goal gave Merrimack a 1-0 lead just 5:50 into game one of the first round playoff series in the 2017 Hockey East Tournament. The Warriors scored three more times to defeat the Wildcats, 4-0, in front of 2,549 at a sold-out Lawler Rink.
“The guys were ready to go from the get-go. We got better as the game went on and got the job done,” said Tavernier.
Tavernier and his young teammates didn’t show many signs of nerves as fellow rookie Johnny Kovacevic had a terrific game on the blue line and added an assist. Another freshman, Tyler Irvine, put the game on ice with an empty net goal.
“No, not at all,” said Tavernier when asked if he felt any added pressure with the intensity of playoff hockey. “I usually do [have nerves], but I was confident. We can beat anyone.”
“The freshmen have been great, especially down the stretch here. You can definitely see the maturity. They’re starting to contribute,” said Merrimack junior captain Jared Kolquist.
Merrimack’s forecheck and ability to control the neutral zone were both major reasons for why the game never really seemed in doubt. Playing a more complete game, especially away from the puck is something that Tavernier believes he has improved on since the start of the season.
“I’m working hard on the forecheck. I’m more involved in the game and skating harder,” Tavernier explained.
“Coach says the middle of the ice is where it starts for us. It’s a huge part of our game. We’re good at retrieving pucks and breaking pucks out of the zone which leads to numbers,” added Kolquist.
Merrimack’s ability to capitalize on its chances, play with speed and control the neutral zone made for a frustrating night for UNH.
“They do a 1-3-1 trap. There’s not much space there. You have to give up the puck and put it in the zone and get it back for possession,” said Umile.
Merrimack will look to close out the best-of-three series Saturday night at 7 p.m. back at Lawler Rink.