NORTH ANDOVER — Ladies and gentlemen, your Merrimack Warriors — projected to finish eighth in the Hockey East preseason coach’s poll — are in first place here on Feb. 16.
And they are looking very much like Boston College typically does at this part of the year.
Merrimack, which won 2-1 in overtime over the Eagles here at Lawler Arena to jump one point ahead of BC in Hockey East, squandered several scoring chances in the first period, then fell behind 1-0 in the second while being outshot 15-11. The Eagles’ second period goal was ruled a goal only after being reviewed.
Momentum buster, right?
The Warriors kept on playing tough and won like good teams do during February and on home ice. They played like BC, a program that’s gone 48-4-3 since Feb. 1 over the last four seasons.
Since the beginning of January, Merrimack is 8-2-1. The Warriors are 4-0-0 in February. They arguably are playing their best hockey since the first half of the 2011-12 campaign when they went 9-0-1 in October and November and earned the No. 1 ranking in Division 1.
There is a huge difference, however, between last year’s hot streak and this one. This one comes at a time when it matters the most. The best college hockey teams play best after the New Year. Merrimack is playing better than anybody else right now and they doing it against the best of the best.
Of Merrimack’s four wins this month, three have been against squads ranked in the latest top 15 of the country (No. 4 BC, No. 5 New Hampshire and No. 14 UMass Lowell).
So how the heck is Merrimack, a team that went 4-7-2 in the first two months of this year, doing what it is doing right now?
Well, it’s a combination of terrific goaltending by Sam Marotta, strong defense, a killer penalty kill and some timely scoring.
Merrimack has allowed just four goals in four games in February. Its penalty kill is a perfect 28 for 28 in its six home games in January and February.
“Give credit to Sam Marotta, he’s the key,” BC coach Jerry York said. “He’s the key to that penalty key. He’s the key to their ability to keep us at one goal. And I think (BC goalie) Parker (Milner) is the key to our penalty kill and our ability to keep them (at bay offensively). It’s a goaltender’s league this year. ... It’s kind of a league with high, high end goaltenders.”
Marotta made 38 saves on 39 shots.
He entered yesterday leading Hockey East in goals-against average (2.08). He certainly has provided stability in net for Merrimack after he and Rasmus Tirronen alternated starts for the first 22 games. Marotta has been in goal for nine straight contests and he certainly looks elite.
“Run down the line — everybody on my D-core, just without them we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing right now,” Marotta said. “Dan Kolomatis is the king of blocking shots. And then you’ve got Brendan Ellis who’s very strategical and gets in the right lanes. Tom McCarthy stopped a three-on-two for me — kicked his leg out, intercepted the pass. They make my job easier. Don’t be fooled by the shots. There’s only a few decent chances. So my D is the reason we won.”
Connor Toomey, who scored the game-winner with 34 seconds remaining in overtime, said Merrimack is not the powerhouse of the league in many people’s minds.
“You think of BC, BU,” Toomey said about the team’s perceived as the powerhouses. “But I think with just the 30 guys in the locker room we know we can play with any team in the league. I think we believe in ourselves and we truly believed tonight that we could win and first place feels pretty nice.”
If this team keeps believing, it could be headed for another tournament berth like two years ago. Why not?