NORTH ANDOVER — Last Friday against No. 4 New Hampshire, Merrimack College junior Mike Collins was at the end of a long shift.
As UNH broke the puck up ice, he had the opportunity to skate to the bench for a change. Instead, he somewhere found the energy to dart back down ice and broke up what was the beginnings of a breakaway for the Wildcats, getting his stick on a pass, causing the puck to bounce harmlessly into the corner.
Collins had three points (2 goals and an assist) in that 3-2 win. But perhaps his most important play was that game-saving backcheck in the second period.
That play has been the epitome of Collins’ game this season. The former Catholic Memorial star leads Hockey East in scoring with 25 points in 16 games (8-17—25), one more point than BC sophomore superstar Johnny Gaudreau (8-16—24), who is likely to be a Hobey Baker finalist, despite the fact that Gaudreau has played in two more conference games.
“Some of the better players in our league are playing with more established players,” Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy said. “Gaudreau is a great, great player. But, he’s playing with Steve Whitney (44-66—110) and Pat Mullane (37-87—124), who both have over 100 points in their career. Kevin Goumas up at UNH is playing with senior John Henrion (28-28—56 for his career).
“Mike’s playing with a freshman (Brian Christie) and (sophomore) Quinn Gould, who has gotten off to a good start but has been injured in his two years here. Teams are honing in on him, he’s not playing with established players, and he’s still getting it done.”
The career point total for Collins’ linemates is 21. For Gaudreau, it’s 234.
Collins also leads all Hockey East juniors in career scoring. Even so, it hasn’t been about just the puck bouncing in the back of the net.
His game has completely transformed.
In the early parts of his career, when the Warriors implemented their stretch play more often than they do now, Collins was typically the one on his line that never sniffed the defensive zone, hanging by the red line waiting for a home-run breakout pass from one of his defensemen.
Now, he’s starring on the penalty kill. He leads all forwards on the team with 19 blocked shots and continues to make stellar plays on the defensive end.
Kyle Bigos, a senior, has played with Collins his entire Merrimack career. But even before that, the 6-foot-5 defenseman was Collins’ teammate with the Vernon Vipers of the British Columbia Hockey League. Together, the pair won the 2009 Royal Bank Cup Championship — the national title for Junior A hockey in Canada.
“One thing about Mike is he’s very coachable,” Bigos said. “I think that’s what makes him able to elevate his game at each level. I’ve seen it. Any info a coach tells him, he uses it and that’s why you see him in position to make a play on the backcheck or always be close enough to the puck to turn up on offense.”
He’s also pretty smart.
Similar to the play last Friday, in Saturday’s game at UNH, Collins was again near the end of a shift. Instead of forcing a pass to a streaking Ben Bahe, who was on the opposite wing, he was at the defensive blue line and actually iced the puck.
Why? Because he knew that Bahe would beat out the icing and create a possession in the offensive zone.
“Everyone would have tried to force that pass across the ice,” Dennehy said. “He had nothing left. I mean, he was gassed. Icing the puck like that, that’s thinking far ahead. That’s thinking, literally, two plays ahead.”
Things seemed to click for Collins after a woeful October trip to Alaska.
“I struggled bad up there,” said Collins, who lives in Boston. “I didn’t come out of the gates the way I would have liked. I made some really costly plays and big errors. I remember, in Alaska, Coach said he felt bad for me because I was working hard but things weren’t going my way.”
In the 21 games since, things couldn’t have gone better. Collins has 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists), which is fifth in the nation over that timespan.
“At the beginning of the year, and definitely in Alaska, he was trying to do too much,” Dennehy said. “He was trying to take on too much of that scoring load. It’s ironic, because since he’s stopped worrying about scoring and being a more complete player, he’s scoring more.”
At the end of the day though, Collins doesn’t seem consumed by it.
“I want to win,” he said. “That’s why I play. Winning is the most fun. I go out and work hard and you get some bounces, you’ll get some goals and assists but those are just bonuses to getting the only real two points that matter at the end of the night.”
Hockey East’s Top Juniors
Goals Assists Points
Mike Collins Merrimack 37 48 85
Matt Nieto BU 33 50 83
Kevin Goumas UNH 27 55 82
Bill Arnold BC 37 38 75