It might seem rather obvious, but those wondering why Merrimack is suddenly winning more games than it is losing need to look no further than two very key factors any hockey team's success. The Warriors have improved their overall team speed and are doing a much better job controlling the puck and maintaining possession this season.
With a weekend home-and-home series against Northeastern on the horizon, Merrimack is just one win shy of matching last season's win total for the entire campaign. At 7-3-1 Merrimack is certainly a much better squad than a year ago. How much better remains to be seen and a fairly soft and home-friendly schedule has undoubtedly helped.
Merrimack's puck possession numbers are significantly better than a season ago. Through just over a month of the season no team in Hockey East has a better shot margin or faceoff percentage than the Warriors.
Perhaps no Warrior has had more of an impact on the puck possession dominance than sophomore Hampus Gustafsson. As the team's top line center he has won 59 more faceoffs than he has lost, a .653 winning percentage on draws. The Ljungby, Sweden native has 30 shots on goal, the second most of any Warrior. His strength in fending off defenders from the puck and winning battles along the boards has allowed for linemate Brian Christie to thrive as well. The pair, along with linemate Ben Bahe, have been relentless cycling the puck down low and in the corners.
For a vast majority of the season Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy has put together three freshmen on the second line. Headlined by center Brett Seney, the line has flourished and has done so by utilizing their superior speed and offensive creativity. Seney is tied for the team lead in goals with five and tied for second in scoring with nine points.
Linemates Mathieu Tibbet and Jace Hennig each have three goals and three assists. The three have developed a nice rapport and chemistry with each other. All three have good speed with Seney and Hennig being the more skilled play makers while Tibbet seems to know how to find the scoring areas and finish plays.
Of course none of the improved puck possession numbers and overall team speed would matter if it wasn't for the play of senior goaltender Rasmus Tirronen who has taken a big step in consistency as well as making the important saves in his final go around in North Andover. Both Tirronen and Dennehy credit the goaltender's improvement with a summer spent back in his native Finland working with his goaltending coach.
Not that every series in Hockey East isn't an important one with four valuable points on the line, but this weekend's home-and-home against Northeastern could be incredibly telling. Merrimack should be able to continue utilizing its strong puck possession game against a Huskies team that is generally weak in that facet of the game.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.