EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 27, 2012

College Hockey: Merrimack's Collins leads a surprising group

Junior Collins leads a surprising group

On College Hockey
Mike McMahon

---- — No matter who you read in September, each and every college hockey pundit in New England had the same assessment when it came to Merrimack College. In unison, everyone thought — actually, it was more like everyone knew — that the Warriors, without the graduated Joe Cannata between the pipes, were bound to struggle in goal and were likely to finish back near the bottom of the Hockey East pack.

Everyone, that is, except me.

I was sure — quite sure, in fact — that goaltending would be fine. So far, with Rasmus Tirronen (2.34 goals-against average, .914 save percentage) and Sam Marotta (2.60, .913) both emerging while splitting the starts in the first 16 games, it has been. For me, my mea culpa has to do with the Warriors’ offense.

Because as sure as I was that goaltending would be steady, I was equally as sure that the Warriors would struggle, and I thought mightily, to score goals. I was also sure, just like my pundit brethren, that the Warriors were doomed to finish near the bottom of the pack.

Granted we’re through just a third of the league schedule, but to this point, myself and others couldn’t be more wrong.

That being said, my reservations when it came to the offense didn’t come without some reason.

Last season the Warriors scored 2.59 goals per game in league play, which was seventh out of 10 teams in Hockey East. They were returning just one of their top-five scorers and one of four double-digit goal scorers – junior forward Mike Collins filled both of those returnee slots. This year’s senior class is thin in numbers, with just four total members with only two having played in at least half of Merrimack’s first 16 games.

“I don’t care who scores, know what I mean?” said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy. “Freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, most guys have a good understanding how we play.”

Yet, Merrimack’s offense ranks third in the league with an even 3.00 goals per game and while they sit sixth in the standings, the Warriors have at least two games in hand on every team in front of them including three league games in hand on Vermont (fifth), Boston University (third) and Boston College (first).

The Warriors are just a point out of fifth and three points out of the last home-ice spot, currently held by Providence, a team that the Warriors have a pair of games in hand on.

Still, Merrimack has plenty of proving to do as they enter the second half of the season this weekend in Vermont with a pair of games at the Catamount Cup tournament.

The Warriors will play Princeton on Saturday (4 p.m.) before a return game with Union on Sunday (4 p.m.), a team that Merrimack beat 4-1 on opening night.

Once full-time Hockey East play kicks into gear in early January, the Warriors will need to prove they can continue to put up goals against some of the league’s best.

Of Merrimack’s 27 league goals, 17 have come against Northeastern and Vermont, which combine as the two worst defensive teams in the league (36 and 34 goals allowed respectively).

The biggest reason for Merrimack’s steady scoring is the aforementioned Collins, who is third in league scoring and second in overall goals. Fellow junior Rhett Bly is another big reason.

One of the best two-way players in the league, Bly has watched his point-per-game production nearly double from 0.29 his first two seasons combined to 0.52 this season.

”What I like about how we’ve played is with the exception of the Colgate game, we’ve been attacking in the third (period),” Dennehy said. “We’re on the balls of our feet and we’re taking ice. Goals are like results, you can’t control them as much as we’ve liked to, but I like our effort and I like our attitude.”