The Merrimack College hockey team is finding its groove at just the right time. The Warriors have an eight-game unbeaten streak heading into the final weekend of the Hockey East regular season.
"We really found our stride. Everyone is more aware of their roles. We are really getting on teams and playing with confidence," said freshman Jonathan Kovacevic, who has been on the top defensive pairing alongside junior captain Jared Kolquist.
Merrimack, currently in seventh place in the Hockey East standings, has the opportunity to secure a home playoff spot in the first round of the Hockey East Tournament with a good weekend at Vermont.
"It’s going to be a pretty exciting weekend. It’s pretty much playoff hockey at this point. It’s about us and making sure everyone is sticking together," said Kovacevic.
Kovacevic, a Grimsby, Ontario native, is playing some of the best hockey of his young career at the same time as the Warriors are heating up in the second half.
The offensive part of his game has always been his strength. He has scored a point in three straight games to push his season totals to three goals and 13 assists in 31 games played. He ranks third in assists and fourth in points among Hockey East freshman defensemen.
"I think passing and how I think the game," Kovacevic said when asked what his best attributes were on the ice. "I think I can read the game and see the ice well."
Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy has talked about building his team from the net out and has preached taking care of your own end since arriving in North Andover. That is a part of his game that is improving.
"I’m a two-way defenseman. I like to take care of my own zone first, but make good passes and try to play well in all three zones," said Kovacevic.
"His poise with the puck," Dennehy answered when asked what he liked about Kovacevic's game after a game against BC earlier in the season. "He doesn't panic with the puck. He's so big and strong he can protect it with his body. He made nice plays. He gained zones. He got pucks deep. He found guys in the middle of the ice. He used his partner and he handled the front of the net."
At 6-feet-4 and 215 pounds, Kovacevic has the potential to develop into a major force in and around his net and in the defensive zone. He has racked up 28 penalty minutes, but is still looking to get better in his own end.
"I'm working on my physical play. As a bigger guy, if I have a good stick and use my body, I think I can be hard to play against down low," Kovacevic explained.
Kovacevic credits the Merrimack coaching staff for giving him responsibility and helping him better learn the game.
They’ve done so much for me. They work with me a lot on video. They just give me a lot of confidence. That’s translated to my game," he said.
Playing alongside Kolquist, a veteran of the Merrimack lineup, has helped Kovacevic continue to improve.
"He’s a leader. He’s a guy everyone looks up to. He gives you guidance. He’s so steady. I just know he’s going to make a smart play," said Kovacevic of his defensive partner.
Coming from the CCHL, a junior league in Ontario, Kovacevic has had to adjust to the college game as a rookie while being counted on to log significant minutes.
The givens, strength and speed, are obviously a big step up. The structure is different. There is a lot more structure and responsibility in college. There was just a basic forecheck and defensive zone coverage in junior. It's a lot more thought out here," said Kovacevic.
Merrimack assistant Curtis Carr, as well as former assistant Glenn Stewart, have both had success pulling in talent from the province of Ontario. Kovacevic said there were many pluses to attending school and playing hockey at Merrimack.
"I really liked the coaching staff. They seemed like great guys," Kovacevic explained. "I liked the small school feel and playing in Hockey East is a big thing. It's a great school and a great campus."
Born in 1997, Kovacevic is in his third year of draft eligibility for the 2017 NHL Draft. NHL organizations have focused on prospects going through the draft process for the second and third time more in recent years than in the past. There are several NHL teams that have been tracking his progress this season. Kovacevic tries to keep the talk of his future on the back burner for the time being.
"Everyone dreams, but I try to not think about it too much. I want to be a pro hockey player and think I can be. It’d be a dream come true, but I can only control what I can control," he said.
For now, Dennehy and the Warriors are fortunate to have Kovacevic on their side as they look to make some noise in the Hockey East Playoffs.