By Mike McMahon
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — You could say that Boston University has been the thorn in Merrimack College’s side. But quite frankly, the Terriers have been more than that.
They’ve been the only team in Hockey East the Warriors failed to beat this season, going winless in three regular-season games and getting outscored 12-4.
And tonight, the Warriors travel to Agganis Arena for the first game in a best-of-3 Hockey East quarterfinal series against BU.
The four goals-per-game the Warriors have allowed to BU is startling, but defense and goaltending is far from the source of Merrimack’s struggles.
The 1.33 goals per game, well that’s another story.
After going 8-2-2 to start 2013, moving up the Hockey East standings and all the way into first place in mid-February, the Warriors finished the season 1-5.
Over the course of the season’s final six games, Merrimack scored a paltry eight goals, half of which came in a 4-3 overtime win against UMass last Friday.
In those five losses, the Warriors scored four goals. Four!
Sam Marotta, Merrimack’s junior goaltender, has been stellar since Jan. 1 when he took over as Merrimack’s primary starting goaltender. Marotta has gone 9-5-2 since then, allowing just 1.99 goals per game and posting a save percentage of .934. Those numbers put Marotta in the top-13 nationally in both categories over that timespan.
But against BU, Marotta allowed three goals in the first period before taking a seat for Rasmus Tirronen. In November, against the same BU team, Marotta allowed three goals on 25 shots in a 3-1 Merrimack loss.
If the Warriors are going to beat the Terriers this weekend, Marotta needs to be at his best.
With an offense struggling to find the net, Marotta needs to steal games.
The former BC High goaltender has worked tirelessly the last two years, prepping for this season with the graduation of All-American Joe Cannata last season.
And with few exceptions, Marotta has been just as good, if not better, than arguably the best goaltender in Merrimack’s history.
“Sam’s bigger,” Dennehy said, comparing the goaltenders. “Sam is 2 inches bigger so he fills more of the net. He’s a little more active in the net, Joe was a little quieter. Sam works his tail off in practice and in games and just never quits on pucks. That’s not to say that Joe did, but Joe had a tendency to get that puck to sit in front of him a little more, while Sam needs to work harder at it.”
Thanks to Marotta, the Warriors were in first place just four weeks ago. In games the Warriors have won this season, Marotta has a 1.49 goals-against average and a .957 save percentage. In games Merrimack has lost, he posts just an .888 save percentage.
What it means is that Marotta has been stealing games. The Warriors earned points in 21 games this season (a win or a tie). In nine of those games, they scored two goals or less.
“He just works so hard,” said senior Kyle Bigos. “We usually say, ‘When in doubt, work harder,’ we learn that from Erik Kapatulik and The Program, and he’s really worked harder than anyone. There’s no quit in him. Coming into the year everyone was speculating what would happen to us without Joe but everyone in the room knew we had two really good goaltenders and Sam has been amazing for us.”
Back to the beginning
For Kyle Bigos and Merrimack’s other seniors, this playoff series at Agganis Arena will be a return trip. The Warriors last played BU in the playoffs at the end of the 2009-10 season, a series which snapped a five-year playoff drought for the Warriors.
The Warriors fell in three games, but Merrimack’s senior class, Bigos included, were freshmen on that team and learned a ton.
Bigos’ class has qualified for the postseason in each of their four seasons, becoming the first class since 2004 to do so for the Warriors.
“We have more confidence now,” Bigos said. “We know what to expect. We know what will be thrust upon us in the playoffs, and what we need to do. It’s easier to wrap your head around that now than it was four years ago. I think it took us some time to get our feet wet when I was a freshman because none of us had been there. Now we’ll be able to come out hot.”
Parker has high praise
BU finished third in the conference, beat Merrimack three times in the regular season and outscored the Warriors 12-4.
That being said, BU head coach Jack Parker had high praise for the Warriors this week.
“I like (Merrimack) in every phase,” Parker said. “They’ve got pretty good balance in all their lines. They’ve got a big-time scorer in (Mike) Collins, they’ve got great goaltending in Marotta and they’ve been really tenacious defensively and really good on special teams, especially penalty killing. They’re a team that brings a lot to the table and it will be a big challenge for us.”
He continued, “I’m not sure if we saw Merrimack’s best game, so I would say the advantage falls with them right now as far as that’s concerned.”
Said Dennehy, who joined the conference call after Parker, “I think I just heard him say that even though they finished third and they beat us three times that Merrimack may be favored. He is amazing; again I just tip my cap because he is always coaching.”
Tale of the Tape Category Merrimack Boston Univeresity Record 15-15-6 18-15-2 Last Four 1-3 3-1 Goals For 2.44 3.03 Goals Against 2.50 2.94 Power Play 13.8 16.2 Penalty Kill 85.8 83.9 Injuries Clayton Jardine Matt O'Connor, Garrett Noonan