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Merrimack Streaking Into Home Ice Position for Hockey East Tournament

Gilligan Merrimack John Corneau/SB Nation

The past month has been a whirlwind of firsts for the Merrimack College hockey team.

It started with an upset victory over Boston University, the top ranked team in the country at the time, at Lawler Rink. The Warriors followed that up with a road victory over BU at Agganis Arena. Never before had Merrimack defeated a number one ranked team at home or during the regular season. In the history of the program, the Warriors had never swept the Terriers.

Last Friday night Mark Dennehy’s team waltzed into Conte Forum and knocked off Boston College, 6-3, ending a drought in Chestnut Hill that dated back to Halloween night in 1997.

After Tuesday’s dominating 3-0 shutout win over UMass, the Warriors find themselves in a tie for seventh place in the Hockey East Standings heading into this weekend’s two-game home series against the University of Maine.

Merrimack is now just one game under .500 overall and has a legitimate chance to finish above .500 in the league with four games remaining. What’s changed for the Warriors since a so-so first half?

First, Merrimack has established its identity and has come together as a team. As Dennehy said after the win over BU at Lawler Rink, the Warriors are a team that needs to make it difficult for teams to transition through the neutral zone. That is exactly what Merrimack has been doing over the last six games.

The new top line has been clicking. Prior to the game against BU that started the unbeaten streak, Dennehy put his top offensive weapons on a line together instead of going for balance. It has worked out.

Big free agent senior Hampus Gustafsson has centered New Jersey Devils prospect Brett Seney on the left wing and 2017 third year NHL Draft eligible Sam Tavernier on the right side.

Led by Seney’s three goals and six assists, all three players have averaged more than a point per game since being united. The junior has the dynamic speed and hands to create offense unlike any other player on the roster.

Gustafsson used his big frame to perfection and recorded a hat trick in the win at BC. It was the first hat trick for a Merrimack player since Carter Madsen recorded the feat in the 2011 Hockey East Quarterfinals against Maine. Even when he’s not scoring Gustafsson’s size creates time and space for his linemates.

Tavernier has a goal and seven assists in the last six games and is starting to find his game in his rookie season. He had just five points in his first 23 collegiate games.

Junior goaltender Collin Delia is doing his best impression of a brick wall. The Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. native has posted a .951 save percentage over the last six games. He battled injury during the first half, but has been one of the best goaltenders in college hockey since the turn of the calendar year.

Merrimack’s defense has effectively broken the puck out of its own zone and pushed the pace through the neutral zone. A perfect example of this was the first goal of the game at BC. Junior Marc Biega led the breakout, carrying the puck up ice before dishing it off to Gustafsson. All three goals in the first period at Conte Forum were transition plays. It’s a huge part of hockey at all levels and Merrimack has been doing it better than usual.

The top pairing of Jared Kolquist and Jonathan Kovacevic has been very good. Kolquist is an undersized defenseman who grinds and does whatever it takes to win. He doesn’t have the pro potential of his partner, but he has a huge heart and is the leader of the team.

Kovacevic is a freshman in his second year of NHL Draft eligibility that has NHL scouts intrigued. He’s been very good over the past six games. He has good size, mobility, retrieves pucks well and thinks the game well. He moves the puck and has a good stick and is learning to play the position better.