By Mike McMahon
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — It’s been an interesting road for Merrimack College this season. Tonight, at J. Thom Lawler Arena, the Warriors will skate against No. 12/13 UMass Lowell, marking their first meeting of the season. On Saturday, they’ll head to Durham to play UNH, wrapping up all three games with the Wildcats in an eight-day stretch, having played a home-and-home with UNH last weekend.
Just two weeks ago, the Warriors played all three regular season games with Maine in a row and earlier this season had wrapped up the season series with Northeastern in just a three-week period — they were done with the Huskies by Nov. 3.
“It’s different,” said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy. “I’m not sure if it’s better or worse. It’s hard to take points from a team on back-to-back nights because of the psychological part of it, and where you play has a lot to do with it, too.
“I think there are benefits though as well. You’ve done your scouting work. This weekend is a little different because we have two scouts. We have two teams that play totally different ways and we need to accentuate different parts of our game for different teams.”
Added Merrimack defenseman Kyle Bigos, “You have to adapt a little within your system because they know so much about you. We’ll tweak things a little bit and we notice that other teams have, too.”
The River Hawks come into Lawler Arena the second hottest team in the nation, going 10-0-1 in their last 11 games after starting the year 4-7-1 in the first 12 games. They trail only Quinnipiac, which has gone undefeated in 17 games, in that department.
“Their defensemen are more active,” Dennehy said,” and they’re getting more pucks to the net and as a result, you’ve seen them scoring more goals.”
Along with that, the River Hawks are one of the speedier teams in Hockey East, especially working the puck off the boards on a cycle. Positionally, they are as sound as any team in the league.
“They’re hard to play against,” Dennehy said. “They all have a good understanding where they need to be, so they move seamlessly and with a lot of team speed. ... They’re one of the better teams picking pucks off the wall on the cycle and attacking the net with speed.”
During this 11-game unbeaten streak, Lowell defenders have 11 goals, led by junior Chad Ruhwedel, who has six during that timespan. In their first 12 games of the season, the River Hawks defenders managed just a single tally, coming off the stick of freshmen Dmitry Sinitsyn.
Defensively, they’ve been just as productive. “They keep a lot to the outside,” Dennehy said. “You don’t get many second chances.”
The Warriors will play Lowell tonight at 7 at Lawler Arena, with the game televised locally on NESN. Tomorrow’s game at UNH will be on WBIN.
Set your DVRs
NESN will provide unprecedented access to a Hockey East locker room in the broadcast on Friday from Lawler Arena, as NESN cameras will give Hockey East fans an inside look to Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy’s pre-game speech from the Warriors’ locker room.
Merrimack sits in a tie for fifth place in Hockey East with Lowell with 18 points and trails Providence by one point for fourth but has a game in hand on the Friars.
The Warriors are 3-1 in season-series, with victories over Maine, Northeastern and Vermont. Merrimack is 5-2-1 in its last 8 Hockey East games.
They went 4-2-1 in January and are 5-3-3 in their last 11.
The senior class of Kyle Bigos, Nick Drew, Brandon Brodhag and John Heffernan is the most successful class in Merrimack’s Division 1 history after earning their 69th win by defeating UNH on last Friday, surpassing the record set by last year’s class.
With a 69-51-18 record, the class of 2013 could become the first class to make the playoffs in all four seasons since Hockey East expanded from eight teams.