By Mike McMahon
NORTH ANDOVER — Things were a lot different around here the last time Merrimack College qualified for the Hockey East Tournament.
The Red Sox were still in the midst of an 86-year curse, the Patriots had won just a single Super Bowl, the Celtics were the laughingstock of the NBA and the Bruins were looking good, primed for a playoff run of their own with Joe Thornton as the first-line pivot.
That was then, this is now.
Tonight at Providence, the Warriors have a chance to clinch their first playoff berth since the 2003-04 season, with a little help from the Maine Black Bears.
"We can't worry about what other teams do," said junior winger Chris Barton, who leads the team with 19 goals. "We just have to worry about ourselves."
The Warriors, on paper, have an easy task. The Friars are last in Hockey East, already eliminated from postseason play, with just five wins in 25 Hockey East games.
Providence ranks last in the league with 1.80 goals per game (Merrimack is scoring 3.04 goals per game).
But the Friars are still dangerous. Sophomore Alex Beaudry is third in the league with a .916 save percentage.
The Friars will have a hard time finding an answer for freshman Stephane Da Costa, who is third nationally in points-per-game.
"I wanted to come here and help this team make the playoffs," said Da Costa. "Since the start of the season, all we have talked about is making the playoffs and playing our game, our Merrimack hockey. There is a lot of history here and we all want to get back to that."
Having the chance to erase six years of futility is also on the players' minds.
"We know how it's been," Sadlowski said. "(The seniors) were here for a lot of it. We understand how important it is for this program to get back into the playoffs and starting earning some respect.
"We deserve it, the program and the fans deserve it. We know we have to get this done. As a senior, we all have a chance to graduate and leave Merrimack with a chance to do something special."
Merrimack can clinch a playoff spot tonight if ...
1. Merrimack wins combined with a UMass loss or tie
2. Merrimack ties combined with a UMass loss
In the final weekend series, any three-point swing (Merrimack earning 3 points and UMass losing 3 points) will clinch a berth for the Warriors.
Merrimack College is offering $1 tickets to tomorrow's home finale at Lawler Arena against Providence College. All tickets ordered and picked up at the box office today will be $1.