NORTH ANDOVER — The last two seasons weren’t the first time Merrimack College goaltender Sam Marotta had to bide his time behind former All-American Joe Cannata.
Back in 2006, Marotta was a junior at B.C. High in Boston. Going into the season, he was slated to be the starting goaltender. Then, this transfer from BB&N — by the name of Cannata — showed up at captains’ practice.
“I remember thinking, ‘oh, this guy isn’t that great,’ and he started the first seven games and didn’t give up a goal,” joked Marotta, who served as Cannata’s backup that season. “He ended up with a goals-against average that was around 0.90 or something, so then I was like, ‘OK, he’s pretty good, but I won’t have to see him again’ Then two years later, here we were again.”
After starting his senior year at B.C. High and then playing a year of junior hockey with the South Shore Kings of the Eastern Junior Hockey League, Marotta followed Cannata to Merrimack, where he served as Cannata’s backup again the last two seasons.
Now, the stage belongs to him.
With just a month left in the regular season, Marotta leads Hockey East in both goals-against average (2.09) and save percentage (.929), having won the starting gig after trading games with sophomore Rasmus Tirronen for the first half of the season.
“I’ve definitely relaxed a little bit,” Marotta said. “At the beginning of the year I was a little jumpy. I haven’t played in two years and I was moving too much. I’d let in one goal and worry because I know that Ras is a great goalie. I’ve definitely been more relaxed and playing better positionally, which I know helps.”
Marotta has also improved his rebound control and according to Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy, is tracking the puck better than at any other time in his Merrimack career.
“Goalies tend to be taller,” he said. “At lower levels, they can just look over the top of the other players. Now guys are screening better than ever and they’re as tall, if not taller than the goalies. Guys work so hard to take away the goalie’s eyes that you need to be very good at tracking the puck and Sam has done a great job of that.”
Dennehy has also noticed Marotta’s quiet composure in the crease.
“Sometimes he was so aggressive he’d go past where he wanted to be,” Dennehy said. “He’s worked really hard at that. Listening, hard work and Sam Marotta are not foreign. They go together. Even before this year he was working his tail off to make sure he was ready when his time came.”
Since the turn of the year, when Marotta became the regular starter, he’s sixth in the nation in save percentage (.947), third in winning percentage (.812) and ninth in goals-against average (1.61). His two shutouts over the same time period is tied for first with two other goaltenders.
Simply put, he’s been one of the best in the country.
For anyone who has been around the Merrimack program the past two seasons, that doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
“He’s always been ready to go,” Dennehy said. “Last year, going into the playoffs, Sam grabbed me and said, ‘Coach, if you need me I’m ready.’ That’s with a healthy All-American goalie in front of him. He didn’t mean it as a disrespect to Joe, but he wanted me to know he was ready to go if we needed him.”
After a 6-2 loss to New Hampshire two weeks ago, many thought that Dennehy might go back to Tirronen the next weekend. But, the coach knew better. Marotta got the start last Friday against Lowell and blanked them, 1-0. He only allowed one goal to New Hampshire the next night, stopping 76 of 77 shots last weekend.
“Someone asked him after the Lowell game about the UNH loss and he said he came in, watched video on Sunday, and then on Monday it was gone because he needed to earn the start (last weekend),” Dennehy said. “For a guy that was playing as well as he had up to that point, it’s easy to say, ‘oh, I’ll still be starting next week,’ but that wasn’t the case. He wanted to come out that week and win the start in practice, and he did.”
And the way Marotta’s been playing of late, he has the Warriors winning a lot more games.
During this stretch where he’s started eight of nine games, the Warriors are 6-1-1, climbing into third place in Hockey East and also back in the national conversation, sitting No. 23 in the Pairwise rankings, which the NCAA uses to select and seed teams for the NCAA tournament.