By Mike McMahon
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — Merrimack College is a team that finished just five points out of first place in Hockey East last season and, in the middle of February, was leading the league.
But somewhere along the final eight games the Warriors seemed to lose their identity. The mission for this new season, at least here in its early stages, is to get back to the hard-hitting, pesky and grind-it-out style that helped propel the Warriors to the Hockey East championship game just two years ago.
That identity starts with toughness around the net.
“That’s where goals are scored,” said senior center and assistant captain Rhett Bly. “You would like to think it’s all nice toe drags in the slot but the majority of goals are scored right around the crease so the more we can get pucks and bodies there, the better off we’ll be. Last year were a little too soft in that area and this year it’s going to be a personal point of pride to get there and get gritty in that area.”
The message wasn’t lost on Bly’s teammates. The Warriors tied McGill Unversity, 1-1, yesterday in exhibition action at Lawler Rink, but the Warriors swarmed McGill goaltender Jacob Chouinard numerous times throughout – especially in the first period – forcing him to make 34 tough saves.
McGill, a university out of Montreal, won the Canadian National Championship in 2012 and tied preseason No. 1 UMass Lowell on Saturday, 3-3, at the Tsongas Center.
“Record (Bly’s message) and play it over and over,” said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy. “Even in the NHL. Until they reduce the size of goaltender equipment, the only way you can score is three yards and a pile of dust. You have to get pucks and bodies to the net. I’m not the only one saying it. You turn on the Bruins or anything else, that’s the game right now.”
The Warriors seem well aware of the issues. Grade-A chances were few and far between in last season’s Hockey East quarterfinal series against Boston University. Yesterday against the Redmen, the Warriors totaled 14 and put 63 total shot attempts towards Chouinard (35 on goal).
“We’re going after our identity again,” Bly said. “We need to be a tough team to play against and be physical. We have a lot of size this year, even the new guys are a lot bigger, so it will be a personal point of pride to get back to those greasy Grade-A goals.”
Freshmen fit in well
All four of Merrimack’s newcomers skated in yesterday’s exhibition. Chris LeBlanc – he was drafted by the Ottawa Senators over the summer – along with Hampus Gustafsson are towering additions, standing 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-4 respectively. On the back end the Warriors add former Providence College defenseman Craig Wyszomirski, another 6-foot-4 newcomer along with the smooth-skating Jonathan Lashyn, who comes from Camrose, Alberta.
“They all picked it up quick,” Bly said. “All of them played really well I thought. They didn’t look out of place to me at all. LeBlanc protected the puck really well and Hampus is a big, strong centerman and all of the new guys, they all like to work so it’s been great additions.”
Shaking off summer league
In one sequence, as Bly went behind the net he was rocked by a McGill defender. It served as a welcome wakeup call that hockey season is underway.
“A lot of it is just shaking some rust off and getting the summer league out of you,” he said. “I got rocked there behind the net and it felt kind of good, actually. It’s good to be banging some bodies like that.”