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Hockey East Tournament First Round Preview: No. 6 Northeastern vs. No. 11 Merrimack

Matt Dewkett

Northeastern and Merrimack will meet for the first time ever in the Hockey East playoffs, but the two schools have clashed in the post-season before. The Warriors upset the Huskies in a two-game total goals series in the first round of the 1988 NCAA Tournament.

On paper this series looks like it should be no contest. The two teams have been going in opposite directions since their series back in November. Merrimack won the first game of the weekend to improve to 8-3-1 while Northeastern salvaged the series split a night later for just its second win of the season after starting 0-8-1.

Jim Madigan's Huskies are 16-6-3 since that winless start through the first nine games of the season. It included a stretch from Jan. It included a seven-game winning streak from Jan. 23 to Feb. 20 and a 14-2-3 record from Nov. 22 through Feb. 20.

On the other hand, Merrimack has taken a nosedive in the standings. The Warriors are 6-13-3 since winning that first game of the weekend against Northeastern on Nov. 21. Merrimack is 1-10-2 since starting conference play for the second half. The only win came in a game that Rasmus Tirronen stood on his head for a 1-0 triumph over UMass Lowell.

Why Northeastern wins easily:

The Huskies have two good scoring lines and a checking line that can pitch in offensively. Led by Kevin Roy and Mike Szmatula, Northeastern's top two lines have been a threat to score every time they've hit the ice. Roy's 19 goals and 24 assists have come largely since NU turned its season around. The Anaheim Ducks prospect had just a goal and five assists through the team's first 10 games. Over the last 23 games he's poured in 18 goals and 19 assists.

Szmatula has provided spark on the second line while John and Nolan Stevens have done  nice job as the team's checking line while also adding some offensive production.

The defense has done a much better job in terms of puck possession this season. The group still makes its share of mistakes and has some defensive lapses, but overall is much better. No one exemplifies that improvement more than Boston Bruins draft pick Matt Benning.

Benning has 22 assists and is +6, but his skating has improved. While he'll never be the most graceful of skaters, he's done a better job containing opposing forwards, keeping them to the perimeter and winning one-on-one battles. He's got a good stick and has logged a ton of minutes for the Huskies.

Clay Witt hasn't been up to his junior year tricks, but he's been solid for most of the second half of the season after missing time during the first 10 games with a concussion.

Witt and the Northeastern defense might luck out and not have to deal with Merrimack freshman Brett Seney, one of the fastest players in college hockey. The 2015 NHL Draft eligible sat out last Saturday's regular season finale against UNH and has been battling an injury the past month.

How could Merrimack pull off the upset?

Any thoughts of a Warrior upset have to start and stop with senior goaltender Rasmus Tirronen. He was extremely good for the first half of the season, but has been a little inconsistent in the second half. There have been games where he's been good such as the Lowell shutout, but he's also let in his share of soft goals. Sure, the defense hasn't always helped him out, but he'll need to be on top of his game this weekend for Mark Dennehy's team to move forward.

Brian Christie and Hampus Gustafsson have to regain some of their first half magic. The two combined for a great first half due to their strength and ability to maintain puck possession, cycle the puck down low and get shots off from between the circles. As Dennehy said after the loss to UConn, his big players have to play big.

When the Warriors do get chances, they have to bury them. If Merrimack fails to capitalize on its chances, it will spell doom and gloom for the visitors. Whether or not Dennehy's team can take advantage of Northeastern's mistakes will go a long way in determining the success it will have this weekend.

Merrimack needs to stay out of the penalty box. The Warriors cannot allow Roy, Szmatula and Dalen Hedges more time and space than they already will have. Staying disciplined and limiting space on the ice for those three to maneuver will be key this weekend.

Senior defenseman Dan Kolomatis is the leader of the blue line. He needs to play his best this weekend. He's got to be sharp and log serious minutes for Dennehy's team.

Game one puck drop is set for 7 p.m. ET at Matthews Arena. Saturday's game two will be broadcast live on New England Sports Network (NESN) and will get underway at 4 p.m. Sunday's game three, if necessary, will start at 4:30 p.m.

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