NORTH ANDOVER — For one night, the entire college hockey universe was focused on Merrimack College. And in case they were wondering, Merrimack hockey is for real.
But anyone who has followed the Warriors from day one this season already knew that.
The only game taking place in the nation last night, the 13th-ranked Merrimack College Warriors continued their assault, disposing of 15th-ranked Boston University, 3-2.
With the win, the Warriors improved their season record to 13-4-4, which is the fourth-best winning percentage in the country.
As the seconds ticked off the clock, I almost had to pinch myself. Where was I? The building resembled that of a Beanpot Championship game, with alums and students, among other fans, standing and cheering while NHL scouts were perched in the corner behind the Merrimack net.
For anyone who has been around Merrimack hockey for a long time, this whole season has been like an out-of-body experience.
It wasn't long ago that the players on the ice sometimes outnumbered the fans in the stands.
But now the raucous environment is just a typical Merrimack hockey game at Lawler Arena. And, of course, that includes another Warrior win.
Merrimack is 6-1-1 at home this season and 18-4-1 in their last 23 home dates. Last night's win came without sophomore Kyle Bigos, one of the Warriors top-four defensemen, as well as regulars Carter Madsen and Elliott Sheen, two of the Warriors best penalty killers, who were both out with a sickness. All of this added on top of the most hectic travel schedule the Warriors will face all season, landing in Boston late Sunday after a pair of weekend games in Nashville only to turnaround on a Tuesday night against nationally-ranked BU.
While it was just another two points for the Warriors, it was the most adversity, at least coming into the game, that this team has faced all season.
But watching the game, you wouldn't have detected a thing.
The Warriors attacked from the get-go, stretching a man at center ice and applying pressure from the opening faceoff. They punched the Terriers right in the mouth.
"It's exciting, especially for the older guys," said junior goaltender Joe Cananta. "The older guys were here when we weren't where we wanted to be. We knew coming into this year we were a good team. If we worked hard, good things would happen. We have to keep it rolling."
Late in the game, it was surreal to watch as the Warriors and Terriers traded roles from the norm.
Instead of Merrimack trying desperately for one last score, it was the Terriers who grew frustrated with Merrimack's ability to keep the puck pressured in their defensive zone.
The result was a nasty blindsided check from Adam Clendening, which sent Merrimack center Joe Cucci crunching to the ice in a heap where he laid motionless, face down, for several minutes before being helped to the locker room.
The Warriors had done to the Terriers what had been done to them so many times the past decade. They had them broken.
Despite the Warriors nearly giving away two points — Merrimack led 3-0 before BU scored twice early in the third period — BU couldn't contain its frustration.
Merrimack seemingly won every battle, be it along the boards or in front of the nets.
"They weren't handing out any trophies tonight," said head coach Mark Dennehy. "But we helped ourselves out by taking care of business and winning at home. That's the benefit of having a veteran club. They've played in some big games already."
Last season, Merrimack set a program record with 16 wins (since joining Hockey East in 1989). Now, they have 13 with 13 games still to play.
The Warriors are no longer the victim, they're one of the bullies of Hockey East.
They can push teams around and they can blow teams out, just ask Maine.
Hockey East, be on notice. This Merrimack team takes what it wants.
This team wants a Hockey East Championship and for the first time ... well, ever ... they're in the discussion.
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