The 2016 Hockey East Playoffs start Thursday night at Lawler Rink when No. 7 Merrimack hosts No. 10 New Hampshire in the first game of a best-of-three first round series.
The Wildcats took three of four points in the regular season series between the two teams, but the Warriors held a clear advantage while at even strength. Both teams have had their ups and downs during the season, but Merrimack comes into the playoffs with some momentum after finishing the regular season 4-2-2.
5 Keys to the Series
- Special Teams - New Hampshire scored four power play goals in the two previous meetings this season. Andrew Poturalski had three of those and Tyler Kelleher had the other. The duo, along with senior Dan Correale, make up a dangerous top line that can wreck havoc on the man advantage. Correale's speed, Kelleher's vision and passing, and Poturalski's finishing ability each bring a unique skill to the unit. Junior defenseman Matias Cleland has already surpassed his points total from the first two seasons. 17 of his 25 points have come on the power play.
Discipline - Merrimack needs to stay out of the box and limit the Wildcats' chances on the man advantage. The Warriors took five penalties to UNH's zero in the 3-3 tie in November. That doesn't mean Merrimack should play with too much finesse. Mark Dennehy's team is at its best when playing an aggressive style and setting the tone. UNH would also benefit from staying out of the sin bin as its penalty kill ranks only ahead of UMass in Hockey East.
Transition - Mark Dennehy and his staff have done a good job in recruiting to address the need for more skillful defensemen who can push the pace, break the puck out of the zone and impact zone entries at the other end. Sophomore alternate captains Marc Biega and Jared Kolquist are battlers. They move the puck and impact possession. The duo log a ton of ice time and can carry the load on the blue line. Especially in the first game between the two teams won by UNH, Merrimack dominated puck possession and play at even strength, but lost the special teams battle.
Goaltending - Freshman Drew Vogler was great last weekend and has improved immensely since the beginning of the season. In fact, Dennehy commented that he's never seen a goaltender progress as much in one season. However, let's not pretend that he completely solidifies the position for the Warriors. UNH sophomore Danny Tirone has proven he can be a difference maker when he's on top of his game. However, he's struggled at times and has suffered from a lack of support in front of him. This isn't a novel concept, but the team that gets better goaltending this weekend will likely be advancing to the quarterfinals.
- Home Ice Advantage - Both coaches can downplay the significance of home ice, but Merrimack has fared far better in North Andover than on the road over the years. Whether it be the low ceiling, tight corners and crowd right on top of the ice, there's just something quirky about Lawler Rink that benefits the home team. UNH did take three points here earlier in the season, but one would think UNH would find the differences more significant than some other teams. The Wildcats are used to playing on an olympic sheet in a cavernous building with no limitations on flipping the puck out of the zone.