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Merrimack Hockey: "A Different Feel"

Winning is believing for Mark Dennehy's squad

Merrimack sophomore Hampus Gustafsson had the overtime game winning goal against UConn.
Merrimack sophomore Hampus Gustafsson had the overtime game winning goal against UConn.
Matt Dewkett

NORTH ANDOVER, MASS. -- There's a whole different energy level permeating from the home team's locker room at Lawler Rink and it's for good reason. After winning just eight games all of last season and finishing dead last in Hockey East, Merrimack is off to a 3-0 start following Saturday's 2-1 overtime victory against University of Connecticut.

"There's a different feel. It's early on in the season, but we've been coming back. When you do those things it starts to plant good memories and you start to have a little bit of a belief system," said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy.

"It feels great. We're a new team this year. We have ten new freshmen so we're just not trying to think about last year. It's a new year. So far we've started off great," said sophomore forward Hampus Gustafsson, the overtime hero against UConn.

All three of Merrimack's wins have been by one goal including the team's opening weekend sweep of Atlantic Hockey foe Holy Cross. This is not the same team that won just two one-goal games a year ago and seemed to be in a mere panic anytime the contest was in doubt.

Merrimack isn't the most talented team in Hockey East, but after two weekends of the season, the Warriors appear back to playing a style of play that more resembles what Dennehy preached when the team was having such success a few years ago. The intensity is up, the energy is abuzz and battles are being won.

Rightfully so, the Warriors are looking to turn the page and move forward. Players and coaches alike are choosing to focus on the present and the immediate future and opting to forget about last season's disaster.

"Again there's a little bit of a different feel. Those guys believe that we can finish it off and that we're going to be a good team," reiterated Dennehy. "We don't talk much about last year, but there's a good feel in that locker room."

The Warriors will likely have a stumble or two here and there, but twice already this season Dennehy has spoken of wins helping in March. Merrimack might or not make the NCAA Tournament, but it's a good sign that the coaching staff and players believe and are setting goals for March. At times last season, it looked as if the Warriors were just going through the motions.

The big development on the ice is that Dennehy has found a nice mix of big power forwards with some other smaller, gritty type players. Gustafsson, Brian Christie and Quinn Gould all do a really good job of using their strength, crashing the net and winning one-on-one battles.

The strength and ability to win puck possession has helped the power play significantly. The puck movement is drastically better than last season and although Merrimack has scored just one power play goal, the man advantage looks much better.

"We've had some pretty good looks. We've just been missing a couple times. We judge success on the power play differently than just goals. We're tracking shot attempts, retrievals and faceoff percentage. If we do enough of those it's going to change the momentum of the game," explained Dennehy.

"When we were on the power play, we were on the power play. [The puck] wasn't going up and down the sheet. It wasn't going anywhere. We had the puck in their zone and tired them out a lot," said Dennehy of his team's puck possession on the power play.

The all-freshman line of Jace Hennig, Mathieu Tibbet and Seney has really provided a spark with their skill and speed. Defensively, the additions of Jared Kolquist and Marc Biega have brought a renewed skill set to the blue line. Both have seen significant time on the power play in the early going.

"Recruiting is not an exact science. Players aren't always what you think they are when you get them. Some are better and some have holes to work on. So far this class is at least as good as we thought it was and probably a couple guys who are better," said Dennehy of his 10-member rookie class.

Another vast improvement from last season is the goaltending position. Merrimack had a combined team save percentage of .890 last year. Albeit early, this season senior Rasmus Tirronen has a 1.32 goals against average and a .943 save percentage through three games.

"What I've always liked about Ras is he has a calming influence back there. You can't tell if you're up a goal or down a goal with him. He just plays the position," said Dennehy. "We thought that he came on at the end of last year and worked hard over the summer. He's off to a good start. We're confident when he's in there," Dennehy added.

Merrimack heads to Mercyhurst this weekend for a two-game set against the preseason favorite in Atlantic Hockey. Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. both nights.

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Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.