When Merrimack’s second-half campaign began back on Dec. 29, there wasn’t a long list of positives for fans to point to in hopes of a better second half.
The team who had achieved unparalleled success for the program the previous two seasons stood unranked and sporting a 6-8-4 record, including ugly 4-4-1 Hockey East conference record.
Beyond that, at home in Lawler Arena where these Warriors typically thrived, they were only 3-3-3. Sure, the team had shown flashes of brilliance, most notably in its opening game at Union College – a 4-1 victory on the road against the no. 5 team in the country.
However it had also shown just how bad it could be, highlighted by a five-game stretch in November where the team went 0-4-1 with an ugly loss to unranked Connecticut.
For captain Jordan Heywood, that was all part of the process. “Early in the year we saw flashes of how good our team could be, but we also saw flashes of how bad we could be.
We were pretty inconsistent at times.” It’s always difficult to pinpoint an exact moment in a season and call it a turning point, but for a team that struggled with consistency all season long, finally finding some has done the trick. For the first half and into the second, Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy did not start a goalie in two consecutive games.
Very early in the season he said he wanted the two to battle and win the position, and as the season progressed he assured everyone it was not a platoon but who the coaching staff liked best in the matchups.
The strategy worked, statistically, as both sophomore Rasmus Tirronen (.914 percent) and junior Sam Marotta (.913 percent) had tremendous save percentages and played well. However, after Tirronen surrendered 3 and 4 goal games to Union and Boston University respectively in his first two starts of the half, Dennehy stuck with Marotta. The junior goalie has now started 10 straight games and 12 overall since the Christmas break.
In those games, Marotta has allowed more than 2 goals only once, posted two shutouts, and has an elite 1.66 Goals Against Average and route to a 8-1-3 record “The no. 1 guy is the guy in net that night,” said Dennehy. “Goaltending is a strength for us. Sam has been playing great, and he’s the beneficiary because of it.”
The team has responded as well, playing their way back into the national conversation. Since the break, Merrimack has gone 8-3-3, including a 5-1-0 record at home and an 8-2-2 mark in Hockey East play. These totals have pushed Merrimack up to 17th place in the USCHO.com National Rankings, as well as first place in the Hockey East Standings.
Where the rankings really matter, though, are in the Pairwise Rankings (PWR), which help the NCAA selection committee determine which teams qualify for the chance to play for the National Championship. The top 16 teams make the NCAA Tournament, and Merrimack is currently tied for 17th with Rensselaer Polytech.
With six games left on their schedule, all of which are against Hockey East teams and four of which are against nationally ranked competition (no. 4 BC, no. 15 BU, no. 12 UMass-Lowell twice), the Warriors hold their destiny in their hands. With that in mind, how far can this team go? Dennehy has high hopes.
“I believe our best hockey is ahead of it,” he said. “We’re back in the conversation, which means we’ve done some good things. But if you want to dream it, you have to believe it. I’ll be damned if I go on the bench with a team who doesn’t believe they can win that night.”
Heywood agrees, and believes his team is hitting its stride at the right moment. “The way that college hockey works is that the team who is playing the best at the right time can go the whole way.
If you can put together one game then you can beat anyone. You look at (National Champions) BC last year, and they won 19 in a row to end the season when no one, at the beginning, really thought they were going to be that good. I think this team could do that too, I definitely believe that.”- In the midst of what could be a special season for the Warriors, the buzz is starting to give fans something to dream for. So, Merrimack fans, heed coach Dennehy’s advice – don’t stop believing.