By Mike McMahon
---- — NORTH ANDOVER -- The Merrimack College Warriors enter this weekend’s home-and-home series with Lowell with four teams ahead of them in the Hockey East standings. Yet, the Warriors are just one point out of first place in the league with four games to play.
It’s been the tightest race in perhaps the league’s history, with the top-six teams separated by just two points. Of those six, four will earn home-ice in the Hockey East quarterfinals, which begins in two weeks on campus sites.
The Warriors enter this weekend losers of two straight games for the first time since November. Entering last Sunday’s game against Boston College, the Warriors were one of the hottest teams in the league.
But, they dropped an overtime decision to the Eagles on Sunday and then were blitzed by Boston University, 5-2, on Tuesday night.
“I watched the video and you’re never as bad as you thought you were or as good as you thought you were,” Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy said. “We’ve moved on. There’s a lot to play for being one point out of first place with four games left. We can’t get bogged down by results, we need to concentrate on the process.”
Merrimack’s penalty kill has been a bright spot since January. The Warriors have killed 42 of their last 44 penalties, including 31 in a row, and haven’t been scored on at home since the turn of the calendar year.
“First and foremost we’re doing a better job playing with discipline,” Dennehy said. “Those 31 penalties have been spread out more than they have in the past. Our PK has been great, but as with anything, if you overuse it, you’ll get burned out. We can’t take clusters of penalties.”
The Warriors also have expanded the bodies used on the penalty kill. Instead of the traditional four forwards and four defensemen split into two units, the Warriors roll six forwards and five defensemen into killing units.
“That helps keep them fresh,” Dennehy said. “Not taking penalties keeps them fresh, too. That, and it always begins and ends with the goalie, and Sam has played great.”
A trim for Tim
When Merrimack took the ice against Boston College last weekend, junior captain Jordan Heywood was nearly unrecognizable.
All season, Heywood has sported flowing gold locks sticking out the bottom of his helmet. But, Sunday, they vanished.
He promised Tim Burke, Merrimack’s Team Impact teammate, that on the final day of his cancer treatment, he’d shave his head.
Team Impact matches up kids facing illness with college athletic teams. Burke has been with the Warriors over a year now.
“He’s part of our team now,” Heywood said. “He’s here three hours before games -- he arrives before a lot of the guys to -- and he just loves being in the dressing room. It’s awesome to see how comfortable he is around us. He’s our biggest fan and he wants to win as bad as us, so that’s a lot of inspiration. We all know how bad he wants to win.”
The Warriors’ relationship with Burke goes beyond just the dressing room. He has most of the players’ cell numbers and regularly exchanges text messages about anything from schoolwork to the Bruins. Last summer, a group of players training on campus took him to a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” and last week, the day of his final treatment, a group of players were there celebrating that evening.
Lowell preaches Team D
UMass Lowell has been one of the hottest teams in the nation the last two weeks, winning six games in a row and only allowing more than two goals once.
For Lowell, their game starts with defense.
“It’s been good team defense,” head coach Norm Bazin said. “Our guys work extremely hard and that’s where it all starts for us.”
The River Hawks have also received some stellar goaltending. Freshman Connor Hellebuyck was named Hockey East’s Player of the Month for February – Merrimack goalie Sam Marotta was named Goalie of the Month – and the Winnipeg Jets’ draftee owns a 1.57 goals-against average and a stellar .940 save percentage.
“Both of our goaltenders have played great,” Bazin said of Hellebuyck and junior Doug Carr. “Connor has given the guys a lot of confidence in the way he’s played. He was out for a few games a few weeks ago and Doug came in and did the same thing for us.”
The last time the Warriors met Lowell, Hellebuyck was in the middle of missing five straight with an undisclosed injury.