In preseason polls and media speculation, Merrimack College was picked to finish anywhere from fifth to ninth in Hockey East.
But head coach Mark Dennehy has only been worried about one opinion.
“It’s not about what anyone else thinks of us,” he said. “It’s about what we think of us.”
Well the Warriors have to be thinking pretty highly of themselves this morning.
On Saturday, Merrimack opened the regular season with an upset victory at No. 5 Union College, 4-1. It was the Warriors’ first win over a top-5 team since a 2010 win over then No. 2 Boston College at Lawler Arena and it was the first time the Warriors beat a top-5 team on the road since a 7-2 thrashing of New Hampshire almost a decade ago, on Dec. 13, 2003.
It’s been just one game, but it was one game against a team coming off a Frozen Four berth last season that’s a favorite to win the ECAC and is ranked fifth in the nation. This wasn’t your prototypical non-conference softball to open the season.
And this wasn’t just an ordinary win. Don’t let the shot numbers fool you. Merrimack controlled this game from start to finish, winning puck battles on the wall and beating the Dutchmen to loose pucks at nearly every opportunity. The Warriors never trailed.
In the process, two of the Merrimack’s most glaring questions may have been answered, and answered loudly.
First, the graduation of All-American Joe Cannata left a gaping hole in the crease and a question that Dennehy has grown tired of having to answer.
“A lot of people have asked about (the goaltending) and it’s all been about Joe Cannata, Joe Cannata, Joe Cannata,” he said. “We have some good goalies here right now. If you were to ask Joe, he’d tell you that the way our guys play in front of him allowed him to be so good.”
Dennehy’s theory proved true.
Junior Sam Marotta more than filled the void, stopping 33 shots including all 16 shots he faced in the first period to preserve what was, at that point, a 1-0 lead.
It was Marotta’s second career start and his second career win. He now boasts career numbers of 2-0-0 with a 0.78 goals-against average and a .975 save percentage.
“It takes everyone in that room,” Marotta said. “It wasn’t just me. They let me see everything and I controlled by rebounds well, so I was happy about that.”
Then there is the issue of goal scoring – my biggest concern for the Warriors when I penciled them eighth in the league on my ballot for the media poll.
Josh Myers showed off why many scouts considered him Merrimack’s biggest addition last season, scoring two goals just minutes apart in the third period to ice the game. Junior Rhett Bly, who Dennehy has said he believes could be in store for a breakout year offensively, prophetically scored the first goal of the season.
All of this against a Union team that was the best defensive team in the nation last season, allowing under two goals per game.
If the Warriors get goaltending from Marotta and Rasmus Tirronen, who will also likely see action this season, along with the goal-scoring punch they showed on Saturday, they’ll have a lot of pundits, myself included, eating crow.