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Hockey East Weekend Preview: Merrimack Begins Conference Play Against Providence

Providence and Merrimack wrap up their Hockey East series this weekend, but the two schools will meet again on January 4 at Fenway Park in a game that will go in the books as a nonconference tilt.

Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy
Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy
Merrimack Athletics File Photo

North Andover, Mass. -- The Merrimack College Warriors are the last Hockey East team to begin playing conference games. Mark Dennehy's team enters this weekend's home-and-home series against Providence College, riding a three-game win streak over three different Atlantic Hockey Association foes.

The competition level will be ratcheted up a few levels this weekend with Nate Leaman's Friars on the opposing bench. Providence comes in at 5-1-1, including a weekend sweep of WCHA favorite Minnesota State and a three-point weekend against NCHC heavyweight Miami. The Friars split their series with Boston University last weekend, but were very close to taking both games if not for a blown three-goal lead at Agganis Arena.

Junior Ross Mauermann has seven goals and six assists to lead the the Providence offense. Calgary Flames prospect Mark Jankowski's four goals shows his desire to make a marked improvement over his rookie season. The most impressive thing about the Friars is their ability to roll four lines and not miss a beat. No matter what line is on the ice, Providence skates hard.

Defensemen Steven Shamanski, John Gilmour and Anthony Florentino are threats to chip in offensively from the blue line. No discussion of Providence is complete without emphasizing the importance of sophomore goaltender Jon Gillies. One of three Calgary draft picks on the roster, he is the reigning Hockey East Rookie of the Year and is the odds-on-favorite to be the starting goaltender at the 2014 World Junior Championships. His numbers are outstanding, and he could leave an offensively challenged Merrimack squad shaking their collective heads.

Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy has praised his team's progress since the beginning of the season. Injuries have certainly played a part in the disheveled start for a Warriors team that lost little off a squad that was in first place as late as February last season.

Senior Mike Collins is back for one last go-round, and he will certainly be the offensive catalyst. He has two goals and six assists and will most likely be on a line with freshmen Hampus Gustafsson and Chris Leblanc. Mark Dennehy also put Quinn Gould and Justin Hussar together on a line, a move that has paid off with the pair scoring three and two goals respectively.

The defense and goaltending will always be the strength of Merrimack. Senior Jordan Heywood has logged a ton of minutes ever since his rookie campaign. Fellow fourth-year mainstay Brendan Ellis has been out of the lineup with a nagging injury. Junior Rasmus Tirronen and senior Sam Marotta will most likely split the goaltending duties this weekend. Marotta was instrumental to the Warriors' second semester success last season, and Tirronen has a 1.71 goals against average and .930 save percentage in his two starts this year.

Merrimack might not have played a Hockey East game yet, but there will be no shrinking from the challenge. After this weekend against Providence, a trip to South Bend to take on Notre Dame awaits.

Jeff Cox covers college and junior hockey, NCAA recruiting, NHL Draft prospects and the AHL for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.