This is not your grandfather's Merrimack College hockey team.
This isn't your father's Merrimack College hockey team. Heck, this isn't the Merrimack College hockey team you watched last year, despite its invigorating season and electric playoff series with Boston University.
It's a new day in North Andover.
Since the 1990s, Hockey East has been dominated by the "Big 4" — Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire and Maine — but this season things appear different.
One publication even touted the league as having a "Big 5."
The Warriors are the new addition to the equation.
Merrimack sits just outside a home playoff spot — in fifth place — just a point behind Maine at the semester break which marks almost half (15 of 34 games) of the Hockey East schedule.
On Thursday, Merrimack will open the second leg of its schedule at Army before visiting RIT on Saturday, a team that advanced to last year's Frozen Four in Detroit.
The next 19 games will define where the Warriors stand as a program. It's their time to prove they belong.
Not only are the Warriors in the top half of the league standings, they're currently on the bubble as an at-large team for the NCAA Tournament, ranked 18th in the Pairwise Rankings.
Here are five reasons why the Warriors are a home-ice team in Hockey East:
1. Joe Cannata
If I'm head coach Mark Dennehy, there isn't a goalie in the league I'd rather have between the pipes than junior Joe Cannata.
Cannata is second in the league in both goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.925), but not even that tells the whole story. Cannata has played his best in the Warriors' biggest games.
In games against nationally-ranked opponents, Cannata is 2-2-2 with a 2.13 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage.
Those include three games with Boston College, ranked No. 2 for two of those games and No. 7 for another, as well as a pair of games with then No. 1 Boston University and another at No. 6 UNH.
Cannata has backstopped the Warriors to the sixth-best scoring defense in the nation.
2. Penalty Kill
It doesn't get any better than Merrimack's penalty kill. The Warriors lead the nation at 89.8 percent, edging Boston College (89.6) in the category.
In those games big games where Cannata has shined, so has MC's killers. The Warriors have killed 36 of 41 penalties in the six games against national powers.
The secret to success has been their blue collar attitude.
Merrimack should invest in ice bag manufacturers for the amount of pucks that have ricocheted off players' shins and various other body parts, as they lay down in front of booming slap shots from the point.
3. The schedule
Of Merrimack's 15 remaining league games, nine come with teams below the Warriors in the standings.
The Warriors still have games with Maine (3), BU (1) and UNH (2), which sit ahead of them, but also still have one game left with last-place UMass Lowell, two at home with ninth-place Vermont and three with eighth-place UMass. The Warriors also play two with Providence (6th place) and one with Northeastern (7th place).
4. The defense
Not a single defenseman has a plus-minus rating in the negative.
Adam Ross (plus-7) leads a crew of defensemen that are, on the whole, a plus-22.
5. The coaching
All around, the Warriors boast the best young coaching staff in college hockey, period.
Head coach Mark Dennehy just turned 43 years old at the start of the season while assistant Phil Roy will turn 34 years old next month; Glenn Stewart is 39 years old and goalie coach Jim Healey is just 27 years old.
This group together has helped mold this program.
Dennehy's labor started from day one and continues to pay dividends.
Roy and Stewart have recruited top talent from Wester Canada and beyond and Healey helped sure up the goaltenders last season during the second half and Cannata has continued to reap the rewards.
Everyone in college hockey works hard, but this group takes it to another level.
When Roy and Stewart leave their young families behind to go on a multi-week recruiting trip, it shows a stellar commitment to the program.
Success starts at the top.
• • •
Join the discussion. To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to eagletribune.com.